Teen anxiety is a serious concern for many parents. According to Beyond Blue, almost 20% of Australian teenagers aged between 11 and 17 will experience some level of high or very high psychological stress and anxiety, with almost 50% of long-term mental health conditions first occurring in children before their 14th birthday. I’m sure you will agree these statistics are significant.
This is further compounded by the impact and long-term toll that ‘these unprecedented times’ may be taking on the mental health of our children and teenagers – the extent of which we can’t possibly know as of yet.
Long stretches of time spent in home schooling environments has triggered a new wave of anxiety in children with many suffering increasing anxiety levels since the first lockdown in 2020.
So, you may be asking yourself – how can I know if my teenager is experiencing elevated stress and anxiety levels?
Teenagers are notoriously moody, an influx of hormones and changes in the neural pathways through rapid brain development can be partly to blame for this. Add into the melting pot the mounting pressures of schoolwork, social interactions and planning for the future during this period and it’s no wonder that our teenagers sometimes struggle with their emotions.
The teenage brain
Often times the big focus of teenage development is around hormones, but did you know that your child’s brain is also going through a massive development change during this time too? The prefrontal cortex, often referred to as the logical brain, is responsible for interpreting information for effective decision making including impulse control, consequence understanding and self regulation. This part of the brain is still developing until early adulthood, which for many is mid to late twenties.
What this means is that your teenager is quite literally running on emotions, relying on their amygdala, a part of the brain that seeks sensation and gratification. This can cause reduced impulse control and increased risk taking making your teenager more susceptible to negative feedback, social setbacks, anxiety and addiction.
It’s not all bad though, as this delayed brain development is due to a process called synaptic pruning – a method used by the brain to reach peak optimal function. During this time, your child’s brain is primed for adaptive learning and performance.
Indicators of teen anxiety
So how do you know if your child is just dealing with typical teenage angst or is actually experiencing heightened anxiety?
You know your child best, so it’s important to pay close attention to any significant changes in behaviour or personality during this time. According to Queensland Health some key indicators of anxiety in this age group include:
- Excessive feelings of overwhelm and worry
- Irritability and moodiness
- Racing and looping thoughts
- Obsessive compulsive tendencies (such as needing to complete a certain task, perfectionism)
- Withdrawing from social or educational situations
- Easily startled or jumpy
- Sleep disruption including night terrors and overheating
- Becoming easily upset over minor details
- Resistance to a change in routine
- Frequent dizziness and headaches
- Erratic heart rate or difficulty breathing
What could be causing you teen to be anxious?
I’ve already explored some of the factors that can lead to an increased risk of anxiety in your teenager, but there are also environmental considerations that could be contributing to an anxious presentation. Things such as frequent antibiotic use, hormonal contraception, lack of exercise, vitamin D deficiency, disrupted sleep, insulin resistance, infections, high sugar intake and substance abuse can all significantly insult the developing teenage brain.
Let’s have a quick look into some of these.
Hormonal contraceptive pill
Did you know that women aged between 15-19 taking hormonal contraceptive medication are at a heightened risk of committing suicide, with the highest risk considered within the first 2-12 months of starting treatment. The reason for this is still being explored but is thought to be due to the influence of manipulated oestrogen and progesterone levels on mood and emotional status, of which teenagers are more susceptible.
Even a single course of antibiotics was found to increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. The research into gut microbiome and the brain connection is one that is constantly evolving, but all indications support the notion that an altered gut microbiome can directly influence emotions, mood and behaviour. This can be especially concerning for teenagers on regular antibiotics whether for recurrent illness, infection or daily acne treatment.
Screen time & social media
Screen time and social media use in adolescents is unavoidable, but it’s no surprise that it could be contributing to mental health decline. Things like cyber bullying, and the comparison game of instagram can trigger several mental health disorders, for example 21% of teenagers experienced negative feelings from what they witness on social media. Screen time can also lead to feelings of social isolation and sensations of loneliness with a direct link identified between amount of device time and suicidal thoughts.
Want to find out more?
If this information has resonated with your situation, and you would like some tailored advice for your child then please get in touch to book an appointment.
Stay tuned for the second part in this series where we explore some of the treatment protocols and coping mechanisms for helping your anxious teen.
Are you dealing with an anxious child under the age of 12? Have a look at this article I wrote on understanding why is my child so anxious?