There has been a lot of discussion in both the media and around the school gates about the increased pressures that youths are facing in their school, family, and social lives.  The youth of today are experiencing increasing amounts of stress as their worlds are more demanding than ever before.  This is due to the pressures applied from a variety of directions – performing well at school and on the sports pitch, peer influences and friendships, their appearance, bullying, and in some cases the breakdown of the family unit.  With all of this extra burden, there has been a huge rise in the amount of  youths developing anxiety issues.  Anxiety is one of the primary mental health problems affecting young people today, with one in five having a mental health issue, and one in six experiencing anxiety problems at some point in their growing years.

The factors that can contribute to anxiety in youth can be complicated, and there may not be one thing alone causing it; often it is a combination of causes.  Some people are born more anxious and nervous than others; their personality and temperament contribute to them being this way.  Whereas, for some it can be a learned behaviour as their parent(s) or other influential people in their lives maybe very anxious or stressful people and for others it may be their environment (i.e., hectic schedules involving intensive tuition and sport training or cyber bullying).

Some anxiety is helpful and can motivate us to stay focused and alert.  It is our body’s way of preparing us for a challenge, and it is the alarm system that activates when we are in danger- this is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. However, when a young person is too anxious it can have a negative impact on their personal, school, and sporting life.

What does anxiety look like in youths?
Most youths at some stage will experience some generalised anxiety, as they may worry about school, performing well, their friendships and family life.  However for some it could be a more serious issue and in this case they may:

  • Experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, tiredness, muscle tension, and panic attacks;
  • Begin to avoid things they fear (i.e., not wanting to go to school or attend training, not wanting to compete or take part in competitions);
  • Display obsessive and compulsive behaviours (i.e., constant need to check things repeatedly or perform rituals or routines over and over);
  • Begin to avoid social situations and become reclusive;
  • May engage in selective mutism;
  • Begin to develop phobias (e.g., dogs, darkness, water) and become very upset and irrational when faced with that fear; and/or
  • Find it  hard to concentrate and have problems with sleeping and eating.

How can we help youths to mange their anxieties?
There are lots of ways that parents, teachers, and coaches can help a youth who suffers from anxiety.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk about anxiety – what it is and what is happening to their body when they are feeling anxious;
  • Help them to recognise anxious feelings so when they do feel anxious, they are able to recognise and ask for help;
  • Encourage them to talk about any worries or fears they may have and discuss ways in which they can overcome them;
  • Support them in being able to face their fears  (i.e., the fear of losing or performing badly) as avoiding anxiety-provoking situations only maintains the anxiety;
  • Motivate them to think in a way that creates positive emotions and/or to redirect their thoughts to the present moment and what they can do right now;
  • Explain and provide reassurance that it is okay to be imperfect (i.e., embrace mistakes as a vital part of learning);
  • Teach and encourage them how to problem solve – this will help them to deal with things better when hard situations arise;
  • Remember that you are a role model – endeavour to remain calm and controlled when faced with stressful situations yourself;
  • Ensure they make time for relaxation and calming activities such as breathing exercises or yoga;
  • Coach them into being able to find a ‘safe place’ in their minds where they feel happy and relaxed, a place they can go to when they are feeling anxious, worried, or stressed; and
  • Promote a healthy diet (low in sugar and additives), good sleeping habits, and regular exercise to stimulate the good endorphins.

Emma Firth
Get in contact with one of our team if you are seeking psychological skills training to help your child manage their anxiety and thrive under the pressure of life, school, and/or sport.