Marissa wondered if it’s possible for a 12-year-old to truly have anxiety. As the school year has gone on, her daughter has faced one issue after another. There have been so many tear-filled mornings and so many calls from the middle school’s nurse saying, “She’s in here again and she wants to go home.” Isn’t this just what life is like for kids this age?

Maybe, but quite possibly not. Therapists have seen a significant increase in the number of teenagers and preteens who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Part of that increase may be attributed to parents and educators being more aware of the symptoms, but much of it is the result of the lives today’s kids are living. There’s more pressure at school, an overwhelming array of media (including social media) sending conflicting and confusing messages, and families experiencing levels of stress that affect everyone in the home.

Anxiety is a perfectly normal part of life at all ages. It’s how our bodies react to stress, and at times, it helps us. Anxiety triggers stress hormones that give us extra energy or strength to make it through challenging situations. We all experience anxiety now and again, and it may range from being a bit apprehensive to something approaching a feeling of panic.

But anxiety can also be severe and pervasive enough that it begins to interfere with our daily activities and relationships with those around us, and statistics point to increases in the number of children who experience that degree of anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in four 13- to 18-year-olds suffers from some kind of anxiety disorder, with about 6 percent having what professionals refer to as a severe anxiety disorder.

Is Marissa’s daughter one of them? It’s entirely possible. One way to know for certain is to see a professional counselor. Counselors are trained to diagnose serious anxiety, so they can determine whether there’s a real concern. They can also give both of you practical steps to cope with the anxiety. One of the tools we use are what are known as Press Pause cards. When a child or teen is feeling anxious, looking at the cards can help them shift to more positive emotions and responses.

One thing parents shouldn’t do is downplay a child’s anxiety by brushing it aside or treating it as though it isn’t real. That can actually increase the degree of anxiety and hurt the child’s self-esteem at a time when he or she is more fragile than normal. Instead, listening to and being patient with your son or daughter can help.

If it seems that the degree of anxiety is troubling, or if you aren’t confident in your ability to provide the support your child needs, please consider making an appointment with a counselor who works with teens. You may discover that what you’re seeing is perfectly normal, or it may require more attention. Either way, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on, greater peace of mind, and the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child.

Brittany Gipson helps children, adolescents, and adults cope with and overcome mental health and addiction-related illnesses.

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