Two people sitting in a park using their mobile phones.

For workers in the community and youth workers Supporting a young person struggling with anxiety

Information and advice for understanding and supporting a young person with anxiety.

Topic:
Understanding feelings and behaviours
For:
Community support, Youth workers

This resource covers:

Learn about anxiety and how to support a young person who is struggling with anxiety.

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What is anxiety?

A young girl looks anxious while holding a mug and talking to her friend who is sitting opposite her in a school canteen.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that is experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings.

Everyone will feel anxious sometimes, but these feelings will usually subside once a particular moment - such as taking an exam or trying something new - has passed.

Anxiety can become a problem when these feelings don’t pass and a young person feels constantly anxious, overwhelmed and distressed. It can also become a problem when previously enjoyable activities or tasks start to make a young person feel anxious.  Young people may start to withdraw and limit what they feel able to do. 

Signs of anxiety during a group session or activity

  • Withdrawing

    This could be:

    • being quieter than usual
    • sitting out of certain group activities
    • they may want to hang around the leaders rather than join in with the group
  • Avoidance

    Linked to withdrawing, a young person may:

    • avoid certain parts of a session or activity
    • avoid having to ‘go first’
    • letting others go ahead instead of taking their turn

  • Change in behaviour

    A young person might:

    • be unable to settle in the session
    • speak more or faster than usual
    • find it hard to concentrate
    • have a noticeable change in their tone of voice
  • Physical symptoms

    This might include:

    • shallow or quick breathing
    • sweating and getting very hot
    • wobbly legs and tense muscles
    • panic attacks
    • sickness/nausea

Behaviours a young person might exhibit to deal with anxiety

Repeating behaviours

Repeating certain behaviours, actions or rituals (these are often called obsessive compulsive behaviors and can be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)).

A change in eating habits

They might start to refuse snacks or food during a session. Alternatively they may start always carrying food on them, or be eating throughout sessions.

Self-harming

Purposefully harming themselves can be a coping technique for anxiety. If you're worried that the young person you are supporting is self-harming, we have some information and advice that can help.

Supporting a young person struggling with self-harm

Supporting a young person you’re worried might be struggling with anxiety

Talk about it

Before you can support a young person who you think is struggling with anxiety, you need to be comfortable talking about mental health and wellbeing. We have worked with adults who support young people in the community to develop tips and advice on how you can best talk to someone who is struggling with their mental health.

Keep checking in

This isn’t a one-off conversation; keep checking in regularly with how the young person is feeling, while remembering to talk about other things too - young people don’t want to be defined by their mental health challenges. Check out our related resources at the bottom of this page for activities to stimulate conversations about anxiety and anxious thoughts and feelings.

Talk about who else can help

This might be the first time a young person shares how they are feeling with you. You can explore with the young person who else in their life they can reach out to for support. This might be a parent, carer, or a teacher at school.

How you can support a young person who has an anxiety disorder

Give the young person the power to contribute to decisions about what might help them access and participate in your group or session. Find a way to communicate - this might be via text or phone, or it might be face-to-face. Reassure the young person that they’ll be welcome in your group and that you’ll consider their ideas to make the group accessible.

The young person may be aware of triggers that affect their anxiety, so you can ask them if they have suggestions about what might make them feel more secure. If they aren’t aware of their triggers, you may want to talk with them about ways of identifying them.

Visiting the space before the group starts, having some more time to get to know the leaders, or being able to join a smaller group all might help make the group accessible for your young person.

Debilitating anxiety doesn’t have to last forever; there will be times in life when we all feel anxious, but it can get better. For example, joining a group session can be a positive step in a young person’s journey of learning to cope with their anxiety. What is important is communicating with them that they can get through this.

When a young person takes a step forward in their anxiety journey, celebrate this together.

Supporting a young person who is anxious about an activity or event

You may want to offer young people the opportunity to take part in an event like a performance or competition. There are many benefits to having the opportunity to perform during adolescence - it can build confidence and self-esteem as well as creating a sense of achievement. However, a number of young people quit sports and arts altogether because of performance anxiety or anxiety about joining group activities. Here are some tips you can give to young people about dealing with performance-related anxiety:

  • Recognise that a level of anxiety and stress before an event is perfectly natural and can help performance.
  • Encourage positive self-talk, for example “I’m proud of myself for trying.”
  • Introduce them to breathing or grounding techniques.

 

A girl sitting in the park wearing headphones. She is looking down at her phone and listening to music.

Tips from community workers

Our community of adults working with young people shared their tips for supporting those with anxiety. 

  • Give young people time to talk to their peers face-to-face, just letting them catch up.
  • I sometimes give our young people activities to do in their own time too, so if a young person is feeling anxious one session, they can sit out for a while. I then have a chat with them afterwards or the following week, to check in with them and ask them if they are okay.
  • Keep listening! Give space and listen – it’s okay to have some silence, you don’t need to have all the answers.
  • Lots of minoritised young people live in a high level of anxiety because they’re scared of those who should protect them. Keep that in mind when talking and consider how you can keep your space safe for those young people.
  • Remember the really small things that seem small to you are really big to the young person.
  • Remember their name and know them as a person.

Helplines where young people can get support

You can share these helplines with the young person you are supporting if they are struggling to open up.

Training

close up of a facilitator wearing eyeglasses talking to parents

Our training can help you feel confident to support young people with their mental health. If you want to know more about anxiety and some practical next steps to support young people, you can attend one of our training courses. 

Take a look at our courses

Helpful resources and stories

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

Please be aware that this form isn’t a mental health support service. If you or a young person you work with is in crisis right now and wants to talk to someone urgently, find out who to contact on our urgent help page.

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Please note:

This form is not a mental health support service. We cannot reply to this. If you or a young person you know is at immediate risk of harm, call 999 and ask for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E. If you are worried about the mental health of a young person you work with, you can signpost them to our website or suggest they contact one of these helplines: Childline (for under 19s) on 0800 11 11; or Samaritans on 116 123.

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