Question: My tween seems stressed and anxious all of the time. How do I know if this is normal or not?
Answer: Between social pressures, physical changes and new academic challenges, tweens do face a lot of potential stressors. Many tweens show anxiety symptoms, just like your child. It can be difficult to know whether your child's anxiety is unhealthy or whether it's just a part of growing up.
Mental health experts consider several factors when determining whether anxiety has become problematic for a tween. There are five major aspects of the anxiety symptoms that are often taken into account. First, they consider the degree of distress the child is experiencing. Is the anxiety highly upsetting or only a mild irritation? Next, they identify whether the anxiety is impairing a tween's normal functioning. For most tweens, normal functioning includes attending school regularly, having at least one close friend who they interact with frequently, and eating and sleeping on a regular schedule. If the anxiety has changed any of those habits, there may be cause for concern.
Third, how frequently do the anxiety symptoms occur? Having a stress-related stomachache once a year is much different - and less concerning - than having one a few times each week. How frequent is "too frequent" is a matter of judgement, however, and varies with the severity of the behavior. For instance, purging food even once may be too frequent to be considered healthy.
Fourth, is this a new problem or has it lasted for a while? If for a while, exactly how long? Due to their rapid, ongoing development, tweens go through phases. Sometimes feeling increased stress and demonstrating heightened anxiety are simply part of a phase that will pass on its own. A problem that has lasted for a while, however, may signal something more serious. Again, how long is "too long" depends on the specific symptom and the other factors we've discussed here.
Finally, are the anxiety symptoms developmentally abnormal? That is, compared to peers her own age, is your tween showing more or different signs of anxiety? For instance, it's common for tweens to experience great stress and upset if they experience a "public" embarrassment like tripping between classes; this overreaction is caused by normal cognitive development. But if a tween constantly obsesses over her perfection in a manner that far exceeds her peers - especially if the behavior is distressing and impairing and has lasted for a long while - then there may be an anxiety disorder brewing.
In the end, do not feel that you have to leave the decision of "is this normal?" to yourself. If you're ever in doubt about your child's mental well-being, contact your tween's doctor. It's best to err on the side of caution. Your child's doctor is in the best position to make the call about what should - or should not - be done going forward. Plus, you can have peace of mind that you took a potential problem seriously, even if proves to be easily managed through easy interventions like exercise and journaling.
Phares, Vicky. Understanding Abnormal Child Psychology, 2nd Edition. 2008. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.