Guest post by Codie Surratt, LPC, MA
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a disorder of excessive fear, worry, or anxiety presenting most days and recurring for at least six months. Fears can range from personal health and well-being to social phobias, family turmoil, and so on, and so on. After reading that you might be thinking, “Oh my, I have GAD!” So, how do you know when it’s generalized anxiety disorder in teens?
Let’s be clear – anxiety, fear, and stress are all natural parts of being human. They come with the territory of being alive and indicate you care about important things. So when does fear become a problem? When fear begins to predominate your life, when fears lead to an overwhelming sense of dread, or when these fears begin to affect the natural rhythm of your day to day functioning. Then, it’s Houston, we have a problem.
Teenagers in Today’s Modern World
Teenagers are defined by the DSM as… LOL! Just kidding. They’re not a disorder, right? But raising a teenager might have you thinking that way.
As a therapist who works with teens on a regular basis, I can tell you this – teenagers are routinely dealing with much more today than adolescents in any of our memories. If you are raising or working with teens today, you did not experience your developmental years saturated with mobile technology and social media. The speed and reach of technology has only continued to increase since the advent of the mobile phone. And this very well may be why you’re worried that your teenager is suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Simply put, teenagers are overwhelmed. They live in an ever faster, continuously stimulated environment that is a recipe for an anxiety disorder. They are connected to technology constantly, so they lack emotional and social skills for genuine connection. In a study done recently by Tamyra Pierce titled Computers in Human Behavior, teens reported being uncomfortable with face to face connection, preferring text messaging, chat rooms, and social media connectivity instead.
You probably are not shocked by this. Many teens have been swiping screens and mesmerized by the pull of the blue back light since before puberty. It’s what they know. However, the brain thrives on social connection, particularly in childhood when mirror neurons are forming to help understand empathy and fully develop social and cognitive functioning. Without this foundation, self-agency, emotional regulation, and social and executive functioning suffer.
The “Damage” Isn’t Permanent
The good news is neuroplasticity. This fascinating concept essentially means you can grow, reshape, and enhance your neural connections. Brain connections that you might have missed in childhood can be grown. You can retrain your brain! And anxious brains can be retrained, too.
So back to generalized anxiety disorder in teens. Yes, teens are overwhelmed, and yes they have it much worse than we did. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean your teen has an anxiety disorder. Remember, some moments of stress and anxiety are good. It proves you care about your life. It can help you build resilience and tolerance, propel you to stretch beyond your comfort zone, and be an overall teaching tool in life. Your child being stressed about an exam and worried about failing is a normal and natural part of life – even necessary.
If your teenager begins to make excuses for going to class, stops studying or trying, begins to isolate and experience panic attacks, it needs investigating. These may be signs of an anxiety disorder. Your teen may need help with emotional regulation, building up self-esteem, or learning cognitive re-framing techniques.
Teenage Developmental Stages
As if being inundated with social pressures isn’t enough, your teen is also navigating a scary part of their developmental growth. Adolescence can be extremely difficult for teens and for those who care for them.
Understanding this developmental stage and recognizing what is normal can help assuage fears you may have that something is wrong with your child. And knowing what’s normal for adolescence can help differentiate typical teen development from the symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder in teens.
1. Teenagers are flooded with hormonal imbalances as their bodies are changing.
Their hormones are completely out of whack, presenting challenges including irritability, mood swings, emotional outbursts. It makes it hard to have an overall sense of what your teen is feeling at any moment. You might want to scream, “What the heck is going on with my kid!”
What you as a parent is experiencing is normal. What your teen is going through is normal. This is a stage; it generally subsides within a few years. Many parents believe that mood swings are gender-specific to girls. But that’s not true. Boys experience these same hormonal imbalances and have many of the same reactions. Society often has different labels and tolerance for male vs. female reactions.
2. Teenagers are shedding childhood.
This is tough for you and your teen because it is a time of intense change. Time is marching on, and your sweet little child is now questioning everything, trusting no one, side-eyeing authority figures, and testing boundaries. This is normal. This is not fun, but this, too, shall pass.
3. Teenagers are searching for their identity.
They are, as Dr. Lisa Damour states, finding their tribe. This can mean they don’t want to have anything to do with parents, siblings, family outings, or anything that once brought them joy in childhood. Peer groups now have their trust and focus. They may begin romantic relationships that preoccupy all of their time. It’s normal. It’s not easy, and it is a phase that will also pass.
4. Teenagers begin thinking about the future and planning to leave the nest.
This is a wonderful thing, but it can hurt and feel uncomfortable. It might make you teary-eyed and nostalgic, and that’s ok. This can actually be a sign that your teenager is indeed on the right track and hopeful for their future selves.
These developmental stages are normal. It may feel overwhelming to you, and most assuredly to your teenager. But these stages form the bridge we all walk from childhood to teenage years to adulthood. It’s not always an easy path. Even with predictable developmental phases, distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy stress and anxiety can be challenging.
When is it Generalized Anxiety in Teens
There are no infallible tests for generalized anxiety in teens. This is because each individual is different, and cognitive and emotional development varies from teen to teen. However, if your child’s stress level seems to be interfering with normal everyday functioning and lasting longer than expected, it’s wise to examine the situation.
I encourage parents to trust your instincts. You may want to enlist the help of a specialist, pastor, school counselor, or therapist if your teen:
- Shows dramatic changes in personality
- Cares about very little in his or her life
- Isolates to the point of pushing everyone away
- No longer grooms himself or herself
- Generally doesn’t care about future planning
- Has dramatic changes in grades and school performance
- Seems unnaturally overwhelmed with anxiety
- Suddenly develops social phobias, which continues for months with little change, you may want to enlist the help of a specialist, pastor, school counselor, or therapist.
Raising children is the toughest job you’ll ever do.
However, raising a teenager doesn’t have to be as scary as it once was thought to be. Changing the language you use to define the teenage years might be a great place to start.
And as always, if you are in the Chicago area, my door is open should you feel your teenager is experiencing more than the typical developmental stage of being a teenager. We have Glen Ellyn and Jefferson Park therapy offices with counselors who can help you demystify generalized anxiety disorder in teens.