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  • Talya Ressel

The plague of Anxiety: The crisis affecting our youth

When most recent figures show that almost 1 in 3 young people are experiencing intense anxiety, we can no longer afford to hope it will simply resolve itself, or dismiss it as a ‘phase’. We have been forced to acknowledge the devastating impact anxiety is having on young people and their families, and how if left untreated it can continue to plague children into adulthood, and sometimes with severe outcomes.

Often parents believe their role and responsibility is to make their child happy. Actually its not – you job is to raise a competent adult who can function in the world. And the most vital, and often forgotten skill needed for that is resilience. It is that sense of being able to solve the problems that life inevitably poses to all of us, and without having opportunities to grow, practice and develop those skills, children are left feeling helpless to cope when anxiety and distress occur.

Some anxiety is a normal part of everyone’s experience. It is the internal alarm that tells us to run away or fight the danger we are facing. Unfortunately this ‘alarm’ can become faulty and send off warning signals to the brain and body when there isn’t any actual danger. Over time, this leads to anxiety taking over and negatively impacting the child’s well-being. Its important to know that there are many tools available to help young people navigate these emotions and the earlier we intervene, the better the outcomes. If left untreated and allowed to grow, it can lead to intense feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless, and at times, feeling like suicide is the only option to stop the pain.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, 75% of our youth experiencing anxiety will not be able to access treatment for their anxiety, so it is vital that parents, caregivers and teachers be aware of what anxiety may look like, and offer some support where possible.

Common symptoms and behaviours of anxiety in young people

  • Any noticeable changes in usual behaviours: Sleeping patterns, eating habits, socialising, mood

  • Constant worry and/or inability to control fear or worry

  • Avoiding situations or places because of fears

  • Complaints of frequent stomach aches/headaches/muscle tension

  • Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks

  • Feeling tense, fidgety, restless

  • Poor concentration and/or irritability

  • Quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts

  • School refusal or reluctance

  • Resisting participating in new activities or trying new things

If you are concerned that your child s experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety, it is important not to dismiss or overlook their experience and to take action. Often the child does not even realise anxiety for what it is – they think that there is something wrong with them and that they are ‘weird’, ‘broken’ or ‘just acting like a baby’.

Techniques for parents to support young people with anxiety

  • Validate their experience and accept it: let them know you see their anxiety and that you are here to support them

  • Normalise anxiety –talk about your own experience with it, and how other people might experience similar feelings

  • Provide factual information about anxiety to reduce the shame and confusion.Eg explain to child what the physical symptoms of anxiety might look like, how the body responds when stressed

  • Ask questions to get a better understanding- they may not be able to explain the feelings, but it shows them you are there, listening, taking it seriously

  • Speak to them about previous times they felt similar feelings –what worked, what helped etc.It help them develop and enhance their own problem solving techniques

  • Help them to see the anxiety as separate from themselves.In therapy we call that externalisation.It helps the child to develop some sense of control over the feeling. You might even give it a name, like Mr Worry or refer to it The Darkness or even The Noise, where the volume gets turned up.

  • Get physical! Often anxiety causes the young person to feel separated from their body and spending a lot of time in their ‘heads’. Highly useful activities include Body Relaxation, breathing and Mindfulness exercises (there are great YouTube and options as well as fantastic apps such as HeadSpace, Breathe, Settle Your Glitter; and Calm for young people). Any physical activity is good at bringing them back to the present moment - the body can’t be anxious & relaxed at same time

If the anxiety continues to impact on their daily life, consult with a professional about additional coping tools to help them reduce those feelings. It is so important for them, and you, to know that anxiety can be treated.

Helpful resources

  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group 0800 12 13 14

  • Lifeline Western Cape 021 461 111

  • Suicide Emergency 0800 567 567

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