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Teen anxiety, stress and compulsive habits

The path to becoming an adult is an exciting and busy time for teenagers. It is full of new experiences and challenges as teenagers begin to find out who they are and become more independent.

It can also be quite a testing time for parents. Many will have to cope with the mood changes and arguments that come with raising a teenager. Once you've got through to your teen, it's well worth it. Until then, if you are having a tough time coping, that's totally normal. Here you can find all the guidance and support you need to get through this tricky but rewarding period.

Stress, anxiety and compulsive habits

Read time: 6 minutes

Remember that as they become more independent teenagers are exposed to more risks. Like alcohol or pressure from peers to act in ways that seem out of character. These risks can make them more vulnerable to other risks. Exploitation or violence, for example.

At the same time teenagers have lots of expectations on them - from home, from school and from their peers. We expect them to act like young adults, yet they are often treated like children. So if you're concerned your teen does have a problem or is in trouble, it's important that you seek help. Don't just wait for them to grow out of it - you could be leaving them vulnerable.


Teenage years are a time of constant change and new experiences. Facing the unknown and making important choices for the future can be very stressful. Anxiety is the most common mental health concern for teenagers. So, if you are worried for your teen, you are not alone.

Everyone has stressful experiences as a teenager. Taking exams for the first time is a classic example! But it can become a problem if anxiety begins to affect your teenager's life. If the anxiety happens regularly, teens can be left feeling tired, alone and helpless. They may develop compulsive habits as a way of dealing with the anxiety and feeling more in control. But this behaviour too can become harmful.

There are a few different types of anxiety that teenagers experience, including:

  • General anxiety. It may appear as though your teen is anxious for no reason. They may also worry about things that are unlikely to happen. This can stop them being able to focus on school and home life.
  • Social anxiety. This is anxiety based on what your teen imagines other people think about them. And what they think might happen if they do the wrong thing. It can prevent them from making new friends. It can also make them want to avoid social situations and busy areas.
  • Phobias. A phobia is when your teenager is very scared about a situation, place, object, animal or feeling. Even if that thing is completely safe. For example, your teen might be so afraid of heights that they go to extreme measures to avoid them.

What can cause anxiety in teenagers?

Anxiety is the way you would expect someone to feel if they were in danger. Your teen's brain tells them they are being threatened, even if the danger is a thought or memory. Your teen's reaction may seem odd to you. But they are only acting this way because their body and brain are telling them they should be scared!

Some of the key causes of this anxious response are:

  • Fear of being judged
  • Feeling they are not good enough
  • Worries about bad things happening to them or their loved ones
  • Constant stress about all sorts of things, such as school, the state of the world and the future
  • Health worries, including fear of germs and illness
  • Feeling responsible for bad things, even if these things are out of their control

What are the common symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety also shows itself as emotion, and can change the way your teens body works or feels. If you're worried your teen may have anxiety, here are some behavioural and physical signs to look out for:

  • Inability to focus
  • Difficulties getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • Strange or grouchy behaviour
  • Often mentioning feeling sick or unwell
  • Tense muscles and fidgeting
  • Panic attacks or trouble breathing and swallowing
  • Pain in their throat, chest or stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Taking toilet trips more often
  • Worrying about everyday activities
  • Sweating or shaking

Anxiety can leave your teen feeling worried and out of control. They may start to act strangely to regain their feeling of control. For example, they might obsess over cleanliness, food or exercise. In serious cases, this can develop into other issues, such as eating disorders or self harm.

Compulsive habits

It can be a scary feeling if you're worried your teenager has developed compulsive habits. But this is more common than you might think and is a treatable condition.

What causes compulsive habits?

Compulsive habits begin as a way for people to deal with anxiety and feel more in control. Having something to focus on gives them an escape from the worries they are dealing with. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when this becomes a more serious, ongoing condition.

Compulsive habits are common among teenagers. They show that your teen is struggling to cope with anxiety.

OCD is different for each individual. It often begins with obsessive thoughts that cause intense anxiety. This is followed by compulsions. Compulsions are actions they feel the need to perform to get rid of the obsessive thoughts.

For example, your teenager may imagine their siblings being hurt and feel scared. To prevent this happening, they believe they must perform certain rituals. Common examples include repeatedly checking doors are locked. Or arranging their belongings in a specific order.

Warning signs

Compulsive habits often seem to be innocent actions and usually start that way. They might be comforting actions like chewing on hair or checking lights are off before bed. This can become a problem if they become obsessive. Or turn into long and complicated rituals.

Every teen is different, but there are some general signs to look out for. Does your teenager do any of the following?

  • Asking over and over for you to check things
  • Lots of cleaning, hand washing and talking about a fear of dirt
  • Worrying about putting objects in a specific order
  • Getting upset by mess
  • Taking longer to complete tasks at home or school
  • Repeatedly checking things at home. For example, checking the door is locked, their straighteners are unplugged, etc.
  • Complaining about their thoughts, especially thinking about a certain word or number
  • Struggling to concentrate or sit still
  • Often being late because they are carrying our rituals

Teenagers may know that their behaviour doesn't make sense. Instead of making it easier to deal with, this can make it scarier for them. This can make your teen want to hide their behaviour. This is particularly true when they find their behaviour embarrassing. Or managing their thoughts tiring.

Top tips for helping your child manage anxiety and compulsive habits

Read time: 3 minutes

How to help your teenager manage their anxiety

  • Talk. Ask your teenager what anxiety feels like and the thoughts they get. Of course, you will want to make them feel better. But be careful not to offer so much reassurance that you dismiss their feelings.
  • Work with your teen to find out if there are specific things making them anxious. From here, you can help make any changes that will tackle these concerns. Some of your teen's worries may be out of their control. If so, you can talk about who's responsible for these things and try to offer reassurance.
  • It can be helpful for you and your teen to learn the signals that they are becoming anxious. When these happen, your teen can learn to calm themselves or turn to activities that will help. Things like drawing, writing, gaming or talking with friends.

Top tips from the NHS

The NHS shares many useful tips to help manage teen anxiety. These include:

  • Get enough sleep. Even if they don't have a strict bedtime, make sure your teenager is getting enough rest. Anxiety is harder to deal with if they are tired.
  • Encourage exercise. Anxiety creates adrenaline which exercise can help use up. Something as simple as a fast walk or gentle yoga can help a lot.
  • Write it down. Writing how they feel can help a teenager work through their thoughts and emotions. Encourage them with a notebook to use as a journal.
  • Breathing exercises. Exercises to slow your teen's breathing and heart rate when they are anxious can help. These include the 7/11, where you breathe in for seven seconds and out for eleven.
  • Tell someone. Encourage your teen to speak to someone. It doesn't even have to be you! It can be a friend, other family member or teacher. Saying worries out loud can bring calm and perspective.

Helping your teenager with compulsive habits

Watching your teenager struggling with their compulsive habits may leave you feeling helpless. But there are lots of things you can do to support your teen and help them manage their behaviour.

  • Talk openly. Don't judge. Give your teenager time to talk about how they feel and why. Be patient, even if their thoughts and fears don't seem to make much sense. Show them that talking can reduce anxiety, and that they don't need to rely on compulsions.
  • Deal with compulsions. When you help your teen carry out their compulsive habits it reinforces that this is the way to cope with anxiety. As much as possible, avoid helping and instead offer other emotional support. But whatever you do, don't intervene when your teen is in the middle of a compulsive habit. This will increase their anxiety.
  • Learn. Read online, watch videos and speak to people with experience. Learn as much as you can about compulsive habits.

Professional help

If you are concerned about your teenager, and if the anxiety or compulsive behaviour increases you should ask for professional help.

The best way to get the help they need is through their GP, who may refer them to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for assessment and a plan for support and treatment.

If your teen is reluctant to get help or doesn't acknowledge the risks you can still receive ask your GP for advice.

Take care of yourself

Don't forget to take care of yourself and ask for help if you need it! Remember, you are not to blame for your teenager's struggles. If you stay positive, it will help your teenager worry less about how they are affecting you.

If you want further information take a look at some of the apps and websites that are designed for those with anxiety and their parents.

Information from external websites

Action for Children have some top tips on how to help when your child feels anxious

Barnardos Family Space shares a useful article on recognising and responding to anxiety.

BBC Bitesize have an article offering top tips for understanding your teenager during the new normal (Covid restrictions).

Childline have lots of advice and tools for anxiety.

NHS advice on anxiety, fear and panic

NSPCC have an informative section on depression, anxiety and mental health

Relate has a useful page with information on teen anxiety. They also have a helpful section on school phobia. And a handy section on compulsive habits.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists shares detailed information for parents on worries anxieties and helping children to cope.

Safe Space Health UK is a website for young people aged 11 - 14 in Surrey. It offers helpful information about emotional health, lifestyle choices, relationships, keeping safe, growing up and being okay with being different.

Young Minds has an excellent section on anxiety for your teen. They also have a helpful section for parents supporting an anxious teen too.

Young Minds also focus on OCD information for teens.

Struggling and need to talk?

For you

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives have a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Young Minds has a free parents helpline. For detailed advice, emotional support and signposting about your teen call 0808 802 5544 (9:30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday)

For your teen

Child and Family Health Surrey offer a text service called ChatHealth, a confidential school nurse messaging service for young people aged 11-19. Young people can contact their school nurse in confidence by text. The Chat Health text number is: 07507 329 951 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm). All of the issues discussed are confidential unless a child's safety, or that of others, is at risk. The school nurses will always encourage young people to discuss issues with their parents or guardians.

Childline have a free and confidential helpline for children. You could encourage your child to call 0800 1111 if they need to speak to someone - open 7 days a week from 7.30am - 3.30am. Childline also have a 1-2-1 counsellor chat for children who don't want to speak on the phone.

No Panic has a Youth helpline for 13-20 year olds who need help with anxiety, panic, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder or any other anxiety related problem. 0330 606 1174. It also has a recorded breathing exercise your teen can listen to that's accessible 24 hours a day. Call 01952 680835.

The Mix has a free helpline for under 25s who need help but don't know where to turn. Your teen can call 0808 808 4994 (7 days a week from 3pm to 12am. You can also web chat 7 days a week from 3pm to 12am, however chats may not be connected after 11:15pm).

Useful videos on managing anxiety

You min=ght find this Family Lives video on anxiety helpful.

View on YouTube

Childline has a helpful video on 3 ways to overcome social anxiety. They also share a short video on is it normal to feel anxiety, as well as their video on managing anxiety and another video on managing OCD

Shout shares a breathing exercise to help with anxiety

You might see if your teen wants to learn how to make a self-soothe box

Young Minds has a helpful video of teens talking about their anxiety and how they manage

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Action for Children has a quick guide to spotting if your teen has low self-esteem

Childline offers a calm zone where your teen can access loads of resources to help when they feel overwhelmed. They also have a toolbox to help take their mind of things and manage their emotions.

Kooth is a free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people aged 11 - 18. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop 365 days a year on Monday to Friday from 12pm–10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 6pm until 10pm.
Your teen can sign up here

You might want to suggest your teen tries the MeeTwo App. it is free, and allows peer to peer support for 11-25 year olds in a forum monitored by trained adults. If your 14 year old posts a question, only other 14 year olds will see the post and be able to respond. Adults monitor questions and answers and hand the question to a counsellor if they feel the child needs more than peer support.

Download Meetwo from Google Play

Download MeeTwo from App Store

You can check out Mindsight Surrey CAMHS printable share help sheets on managing anxiety and how to build a hope box.

The Mix offers a Crisis Text Line for under 25s. Let your teen know if they can't cope and are worried about their feelings they can text THEMIX to 85258 for instant help. The service runs 24/7 and is free.

You might want to teach your teen this breathing exercise from the NHS

No Panic Youth Hub has information for young people experiencing anxiety.

NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting.

Reading Well list a number of books recommended by health experts to support you teen with anxiety. They also recommend books on stress and books on OCD

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

Young Minds have a helpful guide for your teen on coping with school

Young Minds also provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes your teen is in immediate risk of harm, they may share their details with people who can provide support. Text YM to 85258.

There are lots of Apps designed to help support anxiety. ORCHA has reviewed loads of apps so you can find the best and safest. And the NHS have an App Library of NHS assessed Apps.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to three online guides that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts.

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guides.

Access to the guides is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

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Date published: 22 Apr 2021