Teens, Rebellious or Anxious?

Is your “rebellious teenager” actually suffering from anxiety? Why does your teenager insist on engaging in self-defeating or even dangerous behaviors despite the consequences?

So many of our teens’ self defeating and defiant behaviors are caused by anxiety or depression. Then when we try to address only the behavior we hit a wall and they seem to just become more defiant. Here’s an example; Joey refuses to do his homework, his parents tell him that he cannot do anything else until his homework is done each day after school. Joey doesn’t seem to care. He will lay on his bed for hours making up fantasy stories in his head. His parents feel like they have tried everything, sitting with him, trying to help him with the homework, leaving him alone in a quiet space, he just can’t seem to stay focused on the task at hand. Another scenario, Julia refuses to go to school. She struggles to get up in the morning, and she often complains of minor ailments like stomach aches and headaches. When she does make it to school at least half the time she will sit outside or in the library rather than go to class. The school calls her parents 2-3 times a week informing them that Julia has missed one or more periods that day. Each year she misses more and more school and this year she is in danger of truancy. In both of these scenarios the parents have tried a variety of discipline techniques, they have consulted experts and they have worked on the “consistent discipline” that all the books talk about. If you feel like you’re hitting a wall with your teen and they just continue to act defiant despite the consequences, they may be suffering from anxiety.


The roller coaster ride

First, does your teen’s mood and behavior negatively impact their life in some way. One of the first indicators can be problems at school. Are their grades dropping? Do they have poor attendance? Or are they having some behavioral problems? Both of the examples I gave above were teens that said they wanted to do well in school. They would talk about turning things around, they would talk about future educational goals. Teachers, school counselors, and their parents would be hopeful that their goals would motivate them. But they could not seem to get motivated and when their goals failed they would become demoralized and apathetic again. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that they can not seem to get out of with just a pep talk or a carrot dangled in front of them. As the adult we feel frustrated and it’s scary to feel like we have no idea what is wrong. So we can fall into the trap of labeling the child as defiant because then at least we know what to do.

Especially since at the same time they are experiencing anxiety they are also trying to establish more independence and they don’t always want our help. Teens are going through so much change it can be difficult to determine what is a normal part of development and when they might need extra support. If your teen has the following symptoms they may need some extra support:

  1. Excessive worry about the future especially about bad things happening
  2. Fear of being scrutinized, or embarrassed in front of others, peers or authority figures, perfectionism
  3. Difficulty focusing especially at school
  4. Sleep problems
  5. Fatigue
  6. Irritability or emotional outbursts
  7. Restlessness, feeling “keyed up” or like they always have to be doing something.


Some of these symptoms can be difficult to spot in teens, for example sleep problems. If I ask a teen if they are having difficulty sleeping they will often say, “No, I just stay up too late playing on my phone, or watching T.V.” What they and parents often don’t realize is that maybe they are doing those things Because they are having trouble sleeping. Try putting the phone away and turning off all screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime and see how long it takes for your teen to fall asleep. If it takes more than 20 minutes they may be having trouble sleeping for some reason. Also teens are often considered to be very emotional so irritability or emotional outbursts can be dismissed as “a phase”. However, parents usually can tell if their child seems more emotional than usual or “not quite themselves”. So if you are concerned talk to your teen to see if something could be bothering them. Each of these things individually may not be cause for concern but if you notice 2 or three of these changes in your teen you may want to consult with a professional.


If you do suspect that your teen has anxiety please remember that it is common for teens to experience some anxiety and it is treatable. With a few new coping skills most teens will be back on track in a couple of months, and better equipped to face the more adult challenges that are headed their way.

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