Teen Anxiety Treatment: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents
Anxiety is becoming more common among teens due to the pressure they’re under to succeed. They may be overly self-conscious, care too much about what other people think, or have specific phobias of animals, social situations, or death. Anxiety is based on a fear of something but is expressed through physical symptoms. Some people may have panic attacks when they become overwhelmed with anxiety, while others may avoid situations, shut down emotionally, or ramble about the what-ifs. A teen anxiety treatment center may be the best course of action for teens struggling with anxiety.
If your teen’s anxiety is keeping them trapped in a limited comfort zone, reaching out for professional help can help them challenge these fears and learn to better manage their stress. Many parents have a difficult time distinguishing between normal teenage stress and signs of anxiety that their teen may be experiencing.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
Table of Contents
- What is Anxiety?
- What are the Causes of Anxiety in Teens?
- Stressful Life Events.
- Social Media.
- Bullying and Social Struggles
- Family Conflict
- When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Anxiety?
- How to Talk to Your Teen Struggling with Anxiety
- Treatment Options for Anxious Teens
- Outpatient Therapy
- Residential Treatment Centers
- Therapeutic Boarding School
- Wilderness Therapy
- How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Teens Struggling with Anxiety?
- Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs
- Adventure Activities
- Family Involvement
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is experienced differently by every individual and may appear differently depending on the situation. Some people experience anxiety as consistent hyperarousal, while others experience it in association with worrying about specific events. Anxiety is usually associated with ruminating about the past or worrying about the future and is often described as an inability to sit with the present.
Signs of anxiety
- Excessive fears and worries
- Not being able to move on from the thing you are worrying about
- Catastrophizing and thinking things are much worse than they are
- Feelings of restlessness and difficulty concentrating
- Becomes withdrawn, uneasy in social settings
- Frequently occupied with unrealistic concerns or losing control
- Either overly emotional or overly restrained
- Panic attacks
- Low self-esteem
- Ongoing physical complaints, like Increased heart rate, sweating, fatigue, or stomach issues
Types of Anxiety Disorders
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Compared to other anxiety disorders and phobias, generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Often, they jump between unrelated fears rather than hyper-focusing on one. This may mean that once one fear is resolved, they are quick to think of something to replace it.
- Social Anxiety Disorder. Social anxiety is more than just being shy. Unlike the normal feeling of “stage fright”, teens with social anxiety disorder experience a much greater fear of being judged and negatively evaluated by their peers that affects their ability to develop relationships in multiple settings.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Until recently, PTSD was considered a type of anxiety disorder, as it describes the anxiety that results from experiencing or witnessing an intensely stressful event. Many people with PTSD also struggle with generalized anxiety, but anxiety related to trauma is specific to triggers that remind the teen of the event.
- A symptom of Depression. There may be some overlap in symptoms, but depression and anxiety in teens are different conditions that commonly occur together. Anxiety is often listed as a symptom of depression, as anxious thoughts can lead to feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.
How Common Is Anxiety Among Teens?
It is estimated that around 1 in 3 teens struggle with some level of anxiety. It is the most commonly diagnosed mental health issue, as it overlaps with many other disorders, like depression and PTSD.
A small amount of anxiety might be a good thing. It makes us work harder, be more diligent and cautious, not so eager to jump straight into an unknown situation. However, it is helpful to recognize that your teen is not alone and that there is support available to help them manage symptoms of depression.
What are the Causes of Anxiety in Teens?
As with most disorders, there is no single factor or an event responsible for causing anxiety, but rather it is a mixture of genetic, environmental, and psychological, developmental factors, and even personality traits.
Stressful Life Events. Experiencing and dealing with stress is a part of life, but teens who experience significant stressful life events or multiple everyday stressors at once are more vulnerable to struggling with anxiety. A stressful lifestyle like not sleeping enough or having too much on one’s plate also significantly contributes to eventually developing anxiety.
High Expectations for Self and Low Self-Esteem. Teens that are overly responsible and perfectionistic are more likely to develop anxiety, as are those teens that are eager to please, that shy away from conflict, or in general, have very low assertiveness.
Social Media. Teens are constantly connected to social media. It's not surprising that their self-esteem―and worldview ―becomes connected to responses to social media posts. It's hard for them not to compare their life and social connections to what they see others posting on social media.
Bullying and Social Struggles. Making friends is essential to surviving the stress of school and adolescence. Many teens who have experienced being rejected or bullied by their peers may develop negative beliefs about relationships and believe that they will never fit in. If your child has been bullied in school, they may not feel comfortable talking about it, but it is important to look out for signs of depression and loneliness that they may be experiencing.
Attachment Issues. Between peer rejection and family conflict, teens who have struggled to develop secure relationships in childhood are more vulnerable to experiencing social anxiety and an unstable sense of self.
When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Anxiety?
How to Talk to Your Teen Struggling with Anxiety:
Anxiety can quickly become all-consuming in a teen’s life.They may even feel anxious about talking about their anxiety and coming across as irrational, which can prevent them from feeling comfortable reaching out for support. Some tips that may help when talking to your child about how to manage their anxiety may include:
- Validate Their Fears. Acknowledge your teen’s fear—do not brush it off. It’s important that your teen feels validated and taken seriously. You may not have to agree with their concerns, but something like “I understand how real this feels” or “I know how difficult this feels right know” may help them feel heard.
- Ask them about how realistic they feel their worries are. This strategy is used frequently in individual therapy for teens with anxiety. Identifying specific anxious thoughts is the first step is challenging how accurate they are.
- Encourage them to start small. Help them identify which fears seem more manageable to face. Exposure to things they are Scared of is often recommended, but it may be too overwhelming at first.
- Ask what you can do to support them when they are anxious. This might look like giving them space during a panic attack or helping them stay grounded. If social anxiety is something that they struggle with, offering to join them during activities--both everyday errands or taking healthy risks-- to let them know that they are not alone.
- Seek outside help. Teen anxiety treatment often spans beyond help at home. Do not hesitate to seek professional resources to get your teen properly evaluated and receive advice on the best course of action to help reduce anxiety symptoms.
Treatment Options for Anxious Teens:
- Outpatient Therapy. Some therapists in your area may specialize in working with children and teenagers. This is a great resource for families who believe that their child would benefit from talking to someone more regularly about their everyday struggles with anxiety. Therapy sessions often occur weekly and are meant as a check-in about skills they have practiced rather than “crisis intervention.”
- Residential Treatment Centers. These treatment centers work with youth struggling with mental health issues, like anxiety, that have affected their ability to enjoy hobbies, maintain healthy friendships, and cope with stressors in a healthy way. These programs are focused on helping children establish a support system and healthy coping skills.
- Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Longer-term therapeutic boarding schools are often a good fit for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy, their focus is addressing how anxiety or unhealthy coping mechanisms have affected their academic performance and future goals.
- Wilderness Therapy. Adolescents who are struggling with anxiety may benefit from participating in adventure activities in a wilderness therapy program. These activities can help teens find evidence that they are capable of trying new things and experiencing small successes. A focus on adventure activities teaches teens healthy coping mechanisms to take with them after they leave that serve as a powerful tool for self-reflection and connecting with others.
Types of Therapy:
Individual talk therapy is one of the most common treatment options recommended for anxiety, although it is usually more effective when integrated with other approaches. Therapists in wilderness therapy programs are trained in a variety of evidence-based modalities that help teens manage symptoms of anxiety, including:
- Motivational interviewing
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Equine-assisted psychotherapy
- Experiential therapy
- Recreation therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Therapeutic Goals for Teens with Anxiety
When anxious teenagers are able to identify what they’d like their life to look like beyond feeling less overwhelmed, professionals are better able to create personalized treatment plans based on their individual strengths and needs. Some teen anxiety treatment goals that clients may work on during wilderness therapy may include:
- Identifying physical symptoms of anxiety and anticipating panic attacks
- Managing feelings of anxiety through mindfulness and grounding techniques
- Challenging self-doubt and excessive worries
- Building confidence and self-esteem
- Practicing communication and assertiveness skills
- Taking personal responsibility for things they can control in situations
- Developing trust in relationships
- Reaching out to others for support
How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Teens Struggling with Anxiety?
At blueFire Wilderness Therapy, we take students out of their high-stress, fast-paced lives and immerse them in a nurturing, calm, wilderness environment. Just the stark contrast between the two places is often enough for a teen to begin to focus on healing themselves. Many of the teens we work with have had limited experience with outdoor activities, at least on a regular basis, which adds to how transformative a wilderness experience can be. The combination of the power of nature with evidence-based therapy is a strong treatment for teen anxiety treatment that has changed the lives of many students.
Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs
Community Setting: Teens quickly bond with their leaders and peers in small groups, which creates a support system that encourages their progress. This social support is key for teens who have had difficulty connecting with and trusting others.
Healing Atmosphere: Spending a few weeks in the woods is a low-pressure environment for participants to focus on working toward their goals. This encourages them to take things one step at a time rather than getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
Nature’s Medicine: Wilderness programs offer unique benefits that no therapist’s office can offer. Spending more time outside, whether engaging in physical activity or sitting around a fire, is associated with significant health benefits, including but not limited to improved mood, lower stress levels, and more energy. This makes it easier for teens with anxiety to practice self-regulation.
Adventure Activities. The activities offered at blueFire are more than therapy: they are fun and educational. For instance, adventure-based therapy might include rock climbing, camping, canoeing, or mountain biking. This sets them apart from other wilderness programs that focus more on outdoor skills and backpacking. Aside from being enjoyable, these experiences simultaneously teach self-regulation and self-efficacy. By applying the skills learned in a wilderness program, anxious teens can improve their well-being in the outside world.
Family Involvement. We seldom see lasting change occur without strong family involvement. Preparing for the transition from blueFire wilderness program is a vital emphasis of the treatment process. It is important for teens struggling with anxiety to strengthen their support system back home before they return. As part of a family systems approach, parents participate in a multi-day family workshop where they will witness their child’s successes and address behavioral progress and ongoing concerns within the parent-child relationship.