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Teens and Anxiety: Determining if Professional Help is Needed

Toward the end of his freshman year of high school, Jake began to experience severe anxiety. He had extreme test anxiety, which is common among teenagers. But he also had some atypical fears: He was so worried about being in a car accident that he wouldn’t sit in the front seat, and at the mall he feared the floor would collapse.

“At first, he came to me and said he was worrying and having thoughts that sometimes kept him up at night,” says Jake’s mother, Kim. She (correctly) thought it was anxiety. She told him that she could take him to someone who could help him learn how to manage it, but he wasn’t ready.

“He said he wanted to try to manage it on his own and would let me know if that changed. Sure enough, a couple of months later, he came to me and said, ‘I think it’s time for me to see someone about my anxiety.’”

Kim found a psychologist, and Jake has been in treatment for about 14 months. Because he made the decision, Kim and her husband didn’t worry about whether it was time to seek professional help. Kim also felt comfortable reaching out to friends for a referral, in part because she had seen a therapist in the past. But for some parents, the whole idea is daunting and they don’t know where to start.

3 Steps for When You Think Your Teen Might Need Counseling: 

1. Talk to others who know your child.

When parents aren’t sure if their child needs help, they may want to check in with other people who care about their teen.

“If the parent is seeing problems or having concerns, there is a good chance that other people are too: teachers or other relatives, perhaps,” says Tim DiGiacomo, a clinical psychologist and the Clinical Director at Mountain Valley Treatment Center, a residential facility in New Hampshire that treats children and teens with severe anxiety disorders.

2. Understand your own emotions.

Parent, if you are apprehensive about taking the next step, DiGiacomo advises exploring that emotion.

“If a parent can figure out where their own reluctance or concerns are, they can use that information to figure out who and what kind of therapy they want for their teen,” says DiGiacomo, adding that it’s important for parents to keep an open mind.

Perhaps the difficulty is not so much a mental health issue, but typical developmental hurdles or a parent-teen relationship issue. Psychologists can sometimes see the parent alone first to help tease out the nature of the concern.

3. Choose a therapist carefully.

Your teen’s school may be a resource in finding help. School counselors who know your teen often have good relationships with therapists in the community. They may be in a good position to make a match. Pediatricians can also refer your family to trusted providers.

Sarah Stearns, a pediatric psychologist at Deer Creek Psychological Associates in Hanover, New Hampshire, advocates interviewing potential therapists. In the case of teen mental health issues, ask about evidence-based treatment—treatment that has research-demonstrated outcomes—such as cognitive behavior therapy. CBT is a short-term practical approach to problem-solving and is used to change patterns of thinking or behavior.

Whether you choose a psychologist with a doctorate or a therapist with a master’s level certification is a personal choice. Stearns says it’s important that the therapist is either licensed or practicing under the supervision of someone who is licensed.A therapist might recommend a medical evaluation in addition to therapy. In that case, a psychiatrist (who is a medical doctor, unlike a psychologist) may be called in. Sometimes the therapist recommends this because they suspect that medication might help the teen. The family doctor can also prescribe medication.

It can be intimidating for both parents and teens to take the step of seeking counseling for teenage anxiety. But, just as we would go to the dentist for a teen’s cavity, we can help them care for their mental health, too. Like a cavity, mental illness can get worse (and hurt like heck!) without proper attention, but it’s immensely treatable with the right intervention.

Jaimie Seaton is a freelance writer and frequent Your Teen contributor.

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