Learn About Anxiety Disorder in Teens

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural human reaction to potential danger that triggers the fight or flight response. It is a protective behavior that prepares you to face adversity or escape it. When you sense imminent danger, your heart rate increases. Blood flow is diverted from non-essential functions, like digestion, to essential ones, like your muscles, as they prepare to run fast or fight off an adversary.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Today more than ever, children and teens experience anxiety at an alarming rate. Issues like social isolation, life-altering pandemics and a world constantly in flux can cause them to feel out of control, leading to intense anxiety. It is expected that people will experience some anxiety when there are changes or additional stressors in their lives. However, anxiety can become an issue when the symptoms of anxiety become severe enough to interfere with daily life. The diagnosis of an anxiety disorder may be considered when the symptoms of anxiety cause significant distress and impede one’s ability to accomplish goals, follow through with responsibilities, or maintain healthy relationships. There are many types of diagnoses that falls under the category of anxiety disorder. Here are some common ones:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is the most prevalent type of anxiety disorder. It’s characterized by unmanageable feelings of chronic and excessive worry for more days than not for at least 6 months. In addition to excessive worry, GAD is usually accompanied by symptoms such as restlessness, difficulty with concentration, irritability, fatigue, body tension, or sleep disturbance.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions that cause significant distress and interferes with work or social functioning.

Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, ideas, or feelings that recur unprovoked. The obsessions are usually the driving force behind compulsive behaviors. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that are performed in response to obsessive thoughts to alleviate anxiety. For example, a person who has an unmanageable obsession with germs may engage in the compulsion of ritualistic handwashing or a person who excessively worries about security may have the compulsion to check all doors and windows in the house and lock them three times every time they enter the house. While rituals may bring temporary relief, not performing them often only increases the level of anxiety. Many people who struggle with OCD acknowledge that their obsessions are not true or that their compulsions are unreasonable, however, they still struggle to keep their minds off the obsessions or engaging in compulsive behaviors.

Panic Disorder

A panic attack is characterized by a sudden episode of acute fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, abdominal discomfort and dizziness. Panic disorder occurs when there are repeated unexpected panic attacks and the anticipation of the next panic attack causes ongoing worry and potential maladaptive behavior changes in relation to the attacks. For example, a child who had a panic attack at school may refuse to go to school in order to avoid having another panic attack.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & Acute Stress Disorder

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop when people encountered a terrifying event where they feel threatened or experience actual physical harm. The exposure to the upsetting traumatic event may even be second-handed. For example, a child learning about the violent death of a family member, even though the child was not present at the event, can be the indirect exposure that still caused the anxiety.  The main symptom of PTSD is the continued intense and disturbing thoughts as well as unwanted feelings related to their experience long after the traumatic event has ended. Acute Stress Disorder is similar to PTSD, however, the symptoms occur between three days to a month from the traumatic event. About half of the people with Acute Stress Disorder continue on to develop PTSD.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder used to be known as social phobia. Children with social anxiety disorder experience intense fear and worry in social situations, not only when dealing with adults but also in interactions with peers. The anxiety is usually out of proportion to the actual threat in the situation and the resulting level of distress and avoidance behaviors cause impairment in important areas of life. In children, anxiety may be expressed in crying, tantrums, clingy behaviors, inability to speak or freezing in social situations.


Phobias are described as an irrational and excessive fear of a very specific place, fear or object.

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Separation anxiety is a disorder most common in young children that results in extreme fear of being separated from a loved one and sometimes of something tragic that happening to this person.

How Anxiety Affects Your Body

Problems arise when your natural instinct to prepare for danger is stimulated too often, and that danger never happens. Most modern-day dangers are emotional rather than physical, so the physiological changes are really unnecessary. A constant heightened state of awareness is exhausting and can overtax your body by flooding it with stress hormones.

On the emotional side, anxiety can become debilitating when you are constantly trying to protect yourself from potential, although unlikely, dangers. Anxiety can limit your mobility, decrease your social life and affect your performance at work or school. Making even routine decisions becomes impossible when you are worried about the potential outcome.

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Children and teens can face long-term effects from anxiety disorders if they are not treated. Adolescence is a time of change and new discoveries. It is easy for your child to become insecure with his or her changing body and end up developing an anxiety disorder.

Worrying about performance on a test or being asked to a school dance can blossom into obsessing about every detail of daily life. It’s natural for your child to experience some anxiety in anticipation of the big game or a summer job opportunity. If you see some of these signs below, though, you could be dealing with more than just the natural concerns of a growing child:

  • Frequent tantrums
  • Crying or clinging behavior
  • Avoidance of certain people or locations
  • Extreme shyness around people
  • Headaches or stomach aches of unknown origin
  • Poor performance in school
  • Frequent bowel or digestive problems

In its extreme, anxiety can manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you can recognize the symptoms of anxiety, you can help your child learn to cope with changes and develop the confidence and strategies to avoid serious anxiety issues in the future.

How an Anxiety Disorder Is Diagnosed

Anxiety oftentimes manifests in physical symptoms, such as stomach pains or fatigue, because our mental health and physical health are connected. It is helpful to start with the primary care physician or pediatrician to determine that the symptoms are not caused by a medical condition. Unfortunately, there are no laboratory tests that can specifically diagnose anxiety disorders. If a medical condition has been ruled out, mental health professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, or licensed mental health therapists can assess, diagnosed, and treat the condition. It is important to work with professionals who are skilled and experienced in working with children and adolescents because of the assessment and treatment must be developmentally appropriate to the ages and stages of life.

The assessment is usually done through a conversation with the child and the parents. The clinician will gather information about the adolescent’s anxiety symptoms, the psychological and social history, as well as use assessment tools such as questionnaires. If the symptoms and presentation of the problems meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, a diagnosis and recommendation for the course of treatment are discussed. It is important to note that engaging in therapeutic services can be helpful for anyone who suffers from some of the symptoms of anxiety, even without meeting diagnosis criteria for an anxiety disorder.

Hillside is proud to have expertise in treating anxiety in children and adolescents. Our team consists of board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, as well as therapists who specialized in working with children and adolescents.

How to Treat Children and Teens With Anxiety

The common treatment for anxiety is psychotherapy or talk therapy. In some cases, psychotropic medication can be helpful. There are different levels of care in the treatment of different anxiety disorders in teens.  Depending on the type of anxiety and the symptoms, some clients can make progress while meeting weekly with a therapist for outpatient anxiety treatment while some people need to be in a more intensive anxiety treatment setting. Hillside specializes in using evidence-based treatment in working with children and adolescents who need these higher levels of care. We offer anxiety treatment programs for teens such as Intensive In-Home Programming, Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) that is a specialized Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program,  as well as residential treatment. Hillside in the first residential treatment in the country to become a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Program™ and we are committed to using treatment modalities that have been proven to be effective in alleviating symptoms and result in a better outcome.

Here is an overview of some of the anxiety treatment methods Hillside utilizes in working with kids and teens:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy: DBT is a unique form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on helping children and teens reduce emotional extremes by becoming more mindful of their emotions and learning healthy skills to reduce their reactivity. In individual DBT sessions, clients can gain better insight into their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors through the use of the Behavior Chain Analysis. All clients will engage in DBT skills training, which increases their ability to effectively manage their fears and anxious thoughts and replace ineffective coping behaviors with more effective ones.
  • Experiential therapy:  Children and adolescents learn best when they can practice healthy skills and engage in treatment in an experiential way. Simply discussing skills in an office without any real-world practice can make kids and teens feel less likely to engage. Because Hillside specializes in working with young people, we incorporate a variety of experiential therapies that use expressive tools and activities to maximize the effectiveness of our evidence-based treatment. This includes therapeutic techniques such as Theraplay®horticulture therapy and recreational therapy.

How to Help Kids Overcome Anxiety

No one wants to see their child suffering. When anxiety and fear become mainstays in your child’s life, you may be desperate to help them break free. If you’re not sure what to do, here are some tips on how to help your child escape the cycle of anxiety:

  • Be on the lookout: It’s important to pay attention to potential signs of anxiety early on. While some anxiety is normal in children, take note of how intense these feelings are and how long they last.
  • Don’t avoid: Allowing your child to avoid things that cause them fear is only a short-term fix. Plus, continuing to avoid situations or things that cause them anxiety will only reinforce their fears. Instead, help your child learn healthy coping strategies so that your child doesn’t rely solely on you to fix his or her problems.
  • Don’t minimize your child’s fears: Some parents tend to dismiss their child’s fears and don’t take them seriously. Even if they seem overblown to you, to your child or your teen, their worries and fears are real. Be willing to listen and react with compassion when your child opens up to you.
  • Develop a plan: The best way to help your child move forward is with a plan, including healthy coping strategies. The team at Hillside will work with you to understand what your child is going through so that you can be a constant source of support and encouragement as they face their fears and anxieties and overcome them.

Hillside Adolescent Anxiety Treatment Center in Atlanta

As a leading anxiety residential treatment center for teens and children in Georgia, Hillside is committed to providing the treatment and support clients need to overcome anxiety. Our various treatment modalities help children learn to process their emotions and develop strategies for facing challenges in the future. By changing destructive thought patterns, Hillside can help children envision positive outcomes from new or challenging experiences.

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