For tweens and teens, life can be a giant emotional roller coaster, with mood swings, unpredictable behavior, and endless drama. You can chalk some of it up to hormones. But kids this age also face a lot of pressure—especially kids who learn and think differently.
Everything’s getting more complicated—school, their social lives, responsibilities at home. Plus, they’re supposed to start thinking about their future.
Many tweens and teens can cope with the stress. Some even find it energizing. But for others, stress can build and build, leading to anxiety. If your child bursts into tears all the time or has trouble sleeping, how do you know whether it’s typical stress or anxiety?
You can get an idea by looking for patterns in your child’s behavior and by knowing what anxiety looks like at this age.
Here are some signs to look out for, according to John Piacentini, PhD, and Lindsey Bergman, PhD, experts from the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES) Center.
Physical Signs of Anxiety
Often complains of headaches or stomachaches, with no medical reason
Refuses to eat in the school cafeteria or other public places
Changes eating habits suddenly
Won’t use restrooms away from home
Gets restless, fidgety, hyperactive, or distracted (but doesn’t necessarily have ADHD)
Starts to shake or sweat in intimidating situations
Constantly tenses muscles
Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Emotional Signs of Anxiety
Becomes cranky or angry for no clear reason
Is afraid of making even minor mistakes
Has extreme test anxiety
Doubts their skills and abilities, even when there’s no reason to
Can’t handle any criticism, no matter how constructive
Has panic attacks (or is afraid of having panic attacks)
Has pressing fears or phobias
Worries about things way off in the future
Often has nightmares about losing a parent or loved one
Has obsessive thoughts or worries about bad things happening or upsetting topics
Behavioral Signs of Anxiety
Avoids participating in class activities
Stays silent or preoccupied when expected to work with others
Refuses to go to school or do schoolwork
Avoids social situations with peers
Refuses to speak to peers or strangers in stores, restaurants, etc.
Becomes emotional or angry when separating from family or loved ones
Begins to have explosive outbursts
Starts withdrawing from activities
Constantly seeks approval from parents, teachers, and friends
Has compulsive behaviors, like frequent handwashing or arranging things
If you see some of the signs of anxiety on a regular basis, talk to your child’s teacher to find out what’s happening at school. You can also talk to your child’s health care provider. Together, you can come up with a plan for how to help your child.