Parents

Generation stress? How anxiety rules the secret life of teens

When hormones, grades and peer pressure rule your life, turmoil often follows. Yet many families don’t realize how crippling the stress can be for their teenagers.

TODAY’s series on the secret lives of teens began Wednesday with NBC special anchor Maria Shriver taking a look at anxiety, an issue many adolescents struggle with and keep hidden from their parents.

One in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The problem is so severe for 10 percent of teens that it disrupts their lives.

High school students at the Newport Academy, a behavioral treatment center, revealed what it was like to be overwhelmed by the stress they felt from parents, friends, and school.

“I would always have trouble breathing when I was feeling anxious,” said 15-year-old Annamarie, who was a straight-A student.

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“It's a lot of fleeting thoughts in my head, a lot of fear, but I don't really know what I'm afraid of,” recalled 17-year-old Jake, a popular athlete.

“I didn't see any other people in my life struggling with anxiety, so I constantly felt like there was something wrong with me,” Ariana said.

Some of the teens complained that social media has complicated their lives, forcing them to pretend they’re outgoing and having fun when the reality is much different. Many also said their parents added to their anxiety by constantly hovering, arranging after-school activities and pressuring them to do well in class.

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“From a really early age, I was exposed to the idea that if you don't get into a good college, you're gonna amount to nothing. And so I was really stressed out about getting good grades,” Jake said.

To numb themselves, some teens secretly begin to use alcohol or drugs. Others turn to self-harming behavior, like cutting, which one teen said took her mind away from the emotional pain because “something else hurt.” 

One survey shows nearly 1 in 5 college students have tried self-harming. How do you know if your child is among them? Signs might include cut or burn marks on the arms, legs or abdomen, according to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather — such as long sleeves or pants in the summer — is another red flag, as is finding hidden razors or knives.

While some anxiety in teens is normal, experts say withdrawing from common activities is a major warning sign that it has become a problem.

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“Probably the biggest issue is one of avoidance. So teens who are anxious tend to avoid things that they find frightening, and this can be going to school, this can be social relationships, not going to work,” said John Piacentini, director of the Child OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

If you suspect your teen is feeling overly anxious, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips:

  • Listen carefully and respectfully to his concerns
  • Help her understand these feelings are natural parts of adolescence
  • Help him trace his anxiety to specific situations and experiences
  • Praise her when she takes part in new situations in spite of the uneasiness
  • If anxiety takes over your child’s life or lasts longer than six months, ask a doctor or teacher to recommend a professional specializing in treating adolescents.

As for parental pressure, it’s important not to over-program your kids. They need their down-time, just like the rest of us, Shriver said.

For more help and resources, check these websites:

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Children and Teens
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery

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