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Generalized Anxiety Disorder Therapy for Teens

by Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., Director of San Jose Therapy and Counseling

Anxiety is a normal part of life and even children experience situations that can produce it. A phase of anxiety is transitory and typically harmless, but a teenager who begins to suffer from extreme anxiety on a regular basis may have the symptoms of generalized anxiety.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in teens is characterized by excessive worry and concern over various aspect of life including academic achievement, relationships, family issues, and personal appearance. Teens who are going through generalized anxiety find it hard to stop themselves from worrying and often need therapy in order to change their thoughts and behaviors.

The signs and symptoms of GAD in teens includes constant worrying, feeling restless, fatigue, trouble focusing, being easily aggravated by others, trouble falling or remaining asleep, problems functioning including poor grades, and conflict with family and friends.

For many teens with generalized anxiety, worry is used to draw attention away from negative thoughts and uncomfortable emotions, including feelings of sadness, anger, fear and disappointment. Worrying can work in the short term by consuming thoughts and feelings. However, because the worrying is excessive, it has a tendency to increase anxiety in the long run, which in turn produces more distress for the teen. Sometimes the teen thinks that worrying protects them in some way from a negative event, which in turn makes them reluctant to stop this behavior. Other teens have struggle with tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity.

The thoughts and behaviors associated with GAD in teens can become so debilitating that therapy is necessary. Without it, the symptoms can actually become worse and other problems can develop, including sleep difficulties, depression, and substance abuse. One of the most effective approaches to therapy for teens with anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT for generalized anxiety focuses on changing the beliefs and actions that support the teen’s anxiety and excessive worry. The first element of CBT treatment methods are education concerning the character of the anxiety, showing ways to avoid negative thoughts and feelings, and adjusting the teen’s belief that she or he won't have the ability to deal with negative and demanding situations in the future.

After learning what thoughts and behaviors make up the teen’s anxiety and specific pattern of worrying, the CBT therapist works with the teen to develop new abilities for coping with excessive worry and dealing with anxious feelings. These abilities include soothing methods, such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery, as well as and cognitive interventions targeted at changing fearful disaster scenarios with positive, constructive and realistic ideas. These elements of treatment help the teen to manage their fears, in session as well as in the real life, and exercise new methods of reacting to anxiety. With experience facing their worries, most teens end up worrying less and become more able to deal with stress and uncertainty. The typical goals of CBT with teens with GAD include reducing overall anxiety level and worrying, building coping strategies to deal with anxiety, and increasing tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Parents may find that the greatest challenge to getting help for a teen with GAD is their reluctance to see a therapist. If your teen’s worries appear excessive and exaggerated, it's important to try and not add to their anxiety by appearing overly concerned. Help your teen understand that uncertainty and fear about the future are normal and understandable. Be supportive, encouraging, and remind your teen about the things that he or she does well. After talking with your teen, you may discover that it is time to get some professional help.


Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#47803) in San Jose, California. She works with teenagers and adults with anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders. To learn more about Dr. Fredricks' work, visit www.drrandifredricks.com or www.SanJoseAnxietyCounseling.net.


Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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