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Ask The Expert: My Teenager Worries About Everything

Dear Your Teen:

My son is always worrying about everything from schoolwork to making sure he is the best at baseball. Why does he always worry and think negative?

EXPERT | Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.

Anxiety is a normal part of adolescence, but teens vary in the amount and severity of anxiety they experience. While some face transient, low levels of worry that only appear before big tests or games, others worry about what might go wrong in many (or most) situations in their daily lives. For teens that ruminate in this “worst-case” way, too much anxiety can actually hinder their enjoyment of and performance in activities. Many parents feel frustrated when their teenagers rebuff their best attempts at reassurance and support. However, there are some things parents can do to help teens effectively manage anxiety.

“My Son Worries Too Much”

Many adolescents need an explanation of what anxiety is and how it shows up. Anxiety results from the brain’s assessment of a situation as dangerous on some level. The level of danger varies based on the situation. Hearing a scary noise while walking alone in a dark alley and taking the stage to deliver a speech to a packed auditorium are both likely to produce anxiety, but in different levels and in different ways. In addition, individuals experience anxiety differently. What one person may describe as “terrifying,” another would describe as “exhilarating” (think, skydiving or performing on stage). Depending on the person and the situation, anxiety might appear as worried thoughts, racing heart, stomachaches, or difficulty concentrating.

If anxiety is the body’s alarm system, ideally, it only responds to true threats. Just as you wouldn’t want your home security system to go off every time a cat runs across the driveway, it is equally unhelpful to experience high levels of anxiety every time you head to school or to a baseball game. But it is important for teens to know that a certain amount of anxiety is completely normal and actually beneficial during high-stakes situations (e.g., while taking the SAT or trying out for the baseball team). In these cases, a mild to moderate amount of anxiety provides a helpful boost of adrenaline that keeps teens on their toes and increases their focus and motivation.

Managing Negative Thinking

So how much anxiety is too much? If your son is experiencing constant worry, has problems sleeping or eating, complains of frequent headaches or stomachaches, or if his anxiety is keeping him from enjoying or successfully managing school, friendships, or activities, it’s probably time to talk to his pediatrician or a trusted mental health professional.

There are many techniques to help teens manage anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxation can help counter anxiety’s physical effects. Visualization and identifying anxious beliefs (e.g., “I’m going to fail this test!”) help teens cope with the negative thoughts anxiety can create. Above all, teens benefit from knowing that they have the ear of a trusted adult to whom they can vent their worries, practice some coping strategies, or problem solve together.

Dr. Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.

Dr. Tori Cordiano is a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Research Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.