Adolescents who experience significant anxiety disorders often have difficulty achieving a healthy adult psyche. This paper will examine research on anxiety disorders and how they affect teens, focusing on the definition of anxiety, common anxiety disorders among children and teens, including Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), Panic Attack, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, research on the prevalence of these disorders, which anxiety disorders are the most serious and/or difficult to treat, and how these disorders can impact a teen’s mental and emotional development. By looking at the contemporary research, as well as class theories by such experts in the field as Erickson and Piaget, including Erickson’s classic Stages of Development, specifically the ego identity stage from ages 12 to 18, as well as Piaget’s Formal Operations Stage from age 11 to 16, it is possible to see how anxiety disorders impact teens and how vital it is for teens to receive effective treatment in controlling these disorders, as well as the important role parents play in recognizing these disorders and seeking help for their child.

Adolescence is one of the most important growth periods in an individual’s life, especially in terms of psychological development. During these years, when teens are experiencing rapid growth spurts and the unfamiliar stresses of emerging hormones, they are also developing psychologically in such areas as self-esteem, body image, relating to adults as adults, and sexual attraction and identity. All of these are vital for an adolescent to become a mentally and emotionally balanced adult. In all cases, however, anxiety disorders can severely impact this development and lead to lifelong mental health issues.

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What is anxiety? It is defined as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure (American Psychological Association, 2016).” Everyone suffers from anxiety to a greater or lesser degree; it is part of our default psychological setting. However, most people learn coping skills and other ways to live with anxiety without it becoming an overwhelming force in their lives. People who do not do so successfully often develop what are known as anxiety disorders, serious mental conditions. According to the DSM-5, some of the most common anxiety disorders include: Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), Panic Disorder, Panic Attack, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2016). Up to 18% of all Americans surveyed have one or more anxiety disorders (Muris and Broeren, 2008, p. 388). More scientists and doctors are now focusing on the number of children and adolescents with this condition, as well as what can be done to treat them.

Teens are particularly prone to such conditions as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Attacks. Common symptoms of these disorders include: racing heartbeat and rapid breathing, muscle tensions, sweaty palms, nausea, trembling hands or legs, and the uncontrollable urge to cry, as well as “difficulty concentrating, Changes in diet and sleep patterns, feelings of depression or hopelessness, or avoiding people and activities they used to enjoy (Hurst, 2015).” The severity of these symptoms can vary, but at their worst, they can be debilitating. Somewhere between 9% and 32% of children and adolescents suffer from one of these conditions (Creswell, Waite, and Cooper 2014, p. 1). If not treated properly, these conditions can lead to lifelong psychiatric problems. While anxiety disorders impact any victim, teens are even more vulnerable because this is a time in their lives when so much is changing, including their bodies and minds, and they are less likely to have developed the coping skills older individuals have. Teens who do not receive adequate treatment are also more likely to attempt or commit suicide, use drugs to self-medicate, or drop out of school. In some cases, they may also develop eating disorders such as anorexia (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2013).

There are various treatments for anxiety disorders in teens, including cognitive behavior therapy and medication, most specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as fluvoxamine, or Prozac. Some practitioners, however, do not look for anxiety disorders in teens as aggressively as they should, so they need to be trained to recognize and treat these issues (Piacentini, and Roblek, 2002). As with any mental health issue, early diagnosis and thorough treatment are key in controlling and eventually curing these issues. Since in many cases teens will not admit to having an issue (and in some cases they may not even know what is wrong), parents need to be vigilant in looking for signs of serious anxiety disorders and seeking treatment for their child if necessary (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2013)

Noted mental health expert Erick Erickson recognized that adolescence is a vital period in human growth and that the ages of 12 to 18 are when ego identity, both sexual and occupational, are developed (Munley, 1975, p. 316). Teens with anxiety disorders often cannot complete this stage of growth, which has serious implications for their adult lives. For that reason, it is especially important for teens with anxiety issues to receive help in resolving them. Piaget also recognized the importance of this stage of development, theorizing that between the ages of 11 and 15, a child finally begins to be able to use abstract thinking and logic to solve problems (Nakagaki, 2011, p. 371). However, teens with anxiety disorders may not be able to fully develop these skills, and this will impact their adult lives.

Anxiety disorders are common in children and teens, just as they are in adults. If left untreated, these disorders can lead to unsatisfactory physical growth (due to anorexia, for example). They can also cause significant deficits in social and emotional development. Therefore, it is vital that parents be aware of the symptoms of the mot common types of anxiety disorder, and if they see signs that their child may have a problem, they need to seek professional help. Anxiety disorders can be successfully treated, and teens need to have all the available tools in order to develop mentally and emotionally during this crucial phase. Anxiety disorders can cripple this growth, and that is why they need to be aggressively treated. A teen’s future mental and emotional stability may hinge on how well anxiety is managed. The adults in a teen’s life—parents, teachers, and physicians—need to be aware of the symptoms and the serious of anxiety disorders so they can ensure that teens get the help they need and continue to grow towards a mentally healthy adulthood.

  • American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2013. “Facts for Families: Anxiety and Children.” http://www.aacap.org/aacap/fffprint/article_print.aspx?dn=The-Anx
  • American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2016. “Your Adolescent: Anxiety and Avoidant Disorders. http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Resource_Centers/Anxiety_Disorder_Resource_Center/Your_Adolescent_Anxiety_and_Avoidant_Disorders.aspx
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