Anxiety can be a difficult and overwhelming experience for teenagers. It is estimated that one in five young people suffer from anxiety, with many of them struggling to cope with the everyday pressures of school life.

Unfortunately, students who struggle with their mental health often find it hard to ask for help or know where to turn when they are feeling overwhelmed.  For teachers and school staff, understanding how best to support these students is key to helping them manage their anxieties and succeed at school.

This article will discuss what anxiety is, how teachers and schools can help students manage it effectively, as well as provide practical tips and ideas to support teenagers with anxiety at school. If you are looking for ideas on how to support anxious children in primary schools read this article here.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a common mental health issue among teenagers, and can have a significant impact on their social development, academic performance, and overall wellbeing.

Anxiety tends to affect a young person’s body, thoughts and feelings. They may also behave differently, including turning to certain coping behaviours to try to avoid or manage their anxiety.

Anxiety acts as a protective factor to stop the person from 'coming to harm' by triggering warning signs in the body, which feel awful and distressing. Anxiety makes people what to fight, fight, fawn or freeze. Teenagers may have different anxiety responses that result in them developing a range of coping strategies to help stop the awful feelings of anxiety

It’s important for teachers, parents and school leaders to understand how to help a teenager with anxiety in order to provide the support they need so they can engage in learning, feel comfortable at school and help prevent any longer-term mental health problems.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Teenagers

There are several psychical, mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety teenagers may display or experience when they are anxious

Physical symptoms of anxiety:

  • shallow or quick breathing, or feeling unable to breathe
  • feeling sick/queasy
  • dry mouth
  • sweating more than usual
  • tense muscles
  • feeling wobbly or unstable
  • tummy trouble or needing the toilet often
  • getting very hot or flustered
  • extreme anxiety can lead to panic attacks, which can include having a racing heart, breathing very quickly, sweating or shaking and feeling of being out of control

Anxious thoughts and feelings:

  • worrying so much that it is difficult to concentrate and/or sleep
  • overwhelmed or out of control
  • distant and not connected to what is going on around them
  • full of dread or a sense of impending doom.
  • unable to stop upsetting, scary or negative thoughts
  • nervous, on edge, panicky or frightened
  • on high alert to noises, smells or sights
  • worrying about being unable to cope with daily things like school, friendships and being in groups or social situations

Behaviours or changes you may see at school:

  • signs the young person is socially withdrawing or isolating themselves including not wanting to go to school, avoiding social or group situations, not wanting to be away from their parents, or avoiding trying new things.
  • sudden changes to behaviour that seem different
  • repeating certain behaviours, actions or rituals (often called ‘obsessive-compulsive behaviours’)
  • eating more or less than usual
  • issues sleeping or being tired all the time
  • self-harming

What makes young people anxious?

A young person may feel anxious for a number of different reasons, depending on the individual. If a student or young person you work with feeling unmanageable amounts of worry and fear, this is often a sign that something in their life isn’t right and they need support to work out what the problem is.

Certain things can trigger anxiety for some children and young people, such as:

  • being around or spending a lot of time with someone who is very anxious, such as a parent or family member
  • going through many changes in a short period of time, such as relocating to a new house or school
  • being given responsibilities or duties beyond their appropriate age and level of development, for example, the responsibility of taking care of other family members.
  • struggling at school, including feeling overwhelmed by work, and exams or feeling they don't belong in peer groups or at school
  • going through family stress related to issues such as housing, financial difficulties, and debt
  • going through distressing or traumatic experiences in which they do not feel safe, such as being bullied or witnessing or experiencing abuse

Help for teenage anxiety

If a young person you work with is struggling with worry or anxiety, here are some ways you can support them and places you can get help.

Anxiety is a common mental health issue that affects many teenagers, and it can be especially challenging to deal with at school. As a teacher or pastoral staff member it can be a struggle to know how to help your child manage their anxiety and feel comfortable in their school environment.

Here are some practical tips and advice to help teenagers with anxiety at school, as well as share wellbeing strategies that can help prevent mental health problems from developing.

1. Recognize the signs of anxiety

A key step in helping a teenager with anxiety at school is to recognize their early signs. Anxiety can manifest in many different ways, including physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue, as well as emotional symptoms like irritability, moodiness, and excessive worry. You can support teenagers to become more aware of these symptoms, so they can seek help to help them cope with anxiety sooner.

Helping young people to identify early signs of anxiety can be taught in mental health lessons or be part of a whole school approach. One caveat that we suggest when developing or teaching anxiety awareness is that it doesn't lead to over-pathologising or over-diagnosis and that all of a sudden everyone is labelled as anxious, when in fact they are having a normal and understandable reaction to a challenging or distressing situation. To counter this it can be more helpful to focus this awareness-raising work on strategies that cultivate personal wellbeing and prevent anxiety can be more beneficial to teach to teenagers or as a whole school community.

2. Encourage open communication

One of the most important things you can do to help a teenager with anxiety at school is to encourage open communication. Let them know that you are there to listen and support them, and that it's okay to talk about their feelings. Encourage them to express how they're feeling, and try to validate their emotions. This can help them feel heard and understood, which can be a big step in managing their anxiety.

Using mental health awareness raising events like World Mental Health Day or Mental Health Awareness week provides a great opportunity to develop open conversations about anxiety, reduce stigma and raise awareness of where and how to access help and support to deal with any anxiety issues. Many schools we work with use our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme to train students to help design awareness-raising events that encourage open communication.

3. Help teenagers develop coping strategies

There are many different coping strategies that can help teenagers manage their anxiety at school.  Teaching them or supporting young people to use deep breathing exercises can also be helpful in managing anxiety in the moment. Additionally, encourage the young person to take breaks when they need to, and to prioritize their mental health over their academic responsibilities.

A key approach is to encourage young people to develop a personal range of wellbeing strategies or routines that can include activities like exercise, meditation, or journaling. Positive psychology approaches such as working with the SEARCH pathways to wellbeing has been proven to improve teenagers' mental health and wellbeing and can be taught as wellbeing curriculum or lessons so young people can increase the range of wellbeing strategies that prevent anxiety they can use.

Working with a coach can help young people find out, understand and use wellbeing strategies they find helpful, making them adaptable and personal to meet their needs. Working with a coach also helps young people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing meaning young people are much more likely to use their own strategies when they are starting to feel anxious.  

We specialise in training teachers and practitioners who work with young people to learn how to coach young people and prevent the onset of mental health problems such as anxiety.

4. Using strategies to manage anxiety at school

If a teenager is struggling with anxiety at school, it can be helpful to develop a plan for managing their anxiety. Talk to your child's teacher or the school mental health lead about the situation the young person is in, and see if any accommodations can be made to help the young person feel more comfortable. This might include things like extra time on tests, permission to take breaks during class, or the option to leave class early if needed, starting school after registration or using strategies to self-regulate.

Other young people or peers can be a great help when helping teenagers with anxiety develop coping strategies at school. Programmes like our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme train teenagers to learn and share wellbeing strategies based on coaching and positive psychology with peers either 1-2-1, in groups or through the school culture.

5. Consider providing therapy or coaching

If a teenager is struggling with anxiety at school, it may be helpful to consider cognitive behavioural therapy. A therapist can work with them to develop coping strategies and provide support as they navigate their anxiety. Additionally, therapy can help your child develop the skills they need to manage their anxiety in the long-term, which can be invaluable as they move through adolescence and into adulthood. Localised Mental Health Support teams can offer brief CBT based interventions, these may be available in your local area, or local third-sector organisations may be able to provide CBT or counselling sessions.

However, we are specialists in coaching and suggest that coaching provides a great opportunity to support young people prevent or manage anxiety before it gets more difficult to manage.

Coaching teenagers with anxiety helps them access patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviours that are associated with or give rise to anxiety.  It is a great way to provide early prevention and increase young people's ability to develop their own resources or strategies for wellbeing.

Coaching aims to explore alternative thinking patterns and their potential outcomes, it breaks down the process of embedding these chosen patterns into our day-to-day lives in manageable steps and keeps us accountable and on-task when making changes to thoughts and behaviours.

Teachers, pastoral team members and members of SLT can be trained to use coaching with the young people they work with, through our Worth-it Coach training course.

How to help a teenager with anxiety pdf

Schools and practitioners are often looking for resources or downloads that can help anxiety in teenagers. Our free Worth-it Guide Wellbeing Booklet provides a downloadable pdf of wellbeing activities based on positive psychology you can use in 1-2-1 sessions or as a classroom resource. Completing activities like those included in the Worth-it Guide can help reduce the onset of anxiety by increasing wellbeing resources and self-awareness. Download the free pdf for free here.

And Finally...

In conclusion, helping a teenager with anxiety at school can be a challenging task, but it's important to remember that there are many strategies and resources available to support them. Encourage open communication, help them develop coping strategies, develop a whole school approach, and consider therapy or coaching if needed.

With time and support, teenagers can learn to manage their anxiety and thrive in their school environment.  For all our best resources about how to work with young people and support them to prevent and manage anxiety is by joining our Worth-it Coach Training Course.

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