What Is Teenage Angst & When To Be Concerned From A Psychologist Who Knows

teenage angst

If you’re the parent of a teen, chances are you have had plenty of occasions to feel frustrated, confused and worried about how s/he is behaving. That is just how parenting teens goes – as they struggle, we do too.

The pandemic of COVID-19 has brought myriad parental challenges from distance learning to social isolation. Pandemic parenting has allowed many of us to see first hand more of what our teen’s life is, leaving us even more confused about what’s a normal reaction to a challenging time, and what’s not.

One of the most important struggles we can have is determining what is teenage angst vs. what is something more concerning.

What is teenage angst

We are all familiar with the teen stereotype. Teens hide themselves in hoodies, walk with a slouch, grunt in response to questions from adults, play loud music, and can be strong-willed, insecure, and rebellious.

Angst is a concept derived from existential anxiety referring to anxiety about one’s existence. Although different for everyone, teenage angst is generally understood to encompass the range of normal insecurity and stress related to the profound biological changes teens undergo.

Some of these changes are obvious because they affect the size and shape of our teen’s bodies and voices. The fact that our teens struggle at times with these changes is easy to understand because we can see the changes too. Their bodies develop quickly, their voices change, and their skin often becomes an intense focus as their hormones drag their young bodies to adulthood.

Other changes are happening internally. Teenagers’ brains go through tremendous growth and rewiring, a phase of growth second only to infancy. As the teen brain neurologically “updates,” the “lower” more emotional regions update before the “higher” more cognitive ones.

Because of this linear brain development, teens are exposed to intense and mature emotions without the benefit of a fully mature thinking brain. The part of the brain that manages insight, judgment and behavioral control (the prefrontal cortex) will take many more years to fully update.

Teens feelings therefore are intense, driving powerful creativity and motivation, but also frustration and overwhelm.  These emotional changes can be scary for teens, and are fundamental to how we understand what is teenage angst.

Angst can span a gamut from normal insecurity to more acute feelings of anxiety or apprehension that can be accompanied by depression. It can also be a frustrating, painful and frightening challenge for parents as well, as we can struggle to understand what is teenage angst, and what is something more serious.

Clarifying the range from normal to more serious can help parents feel more confident navigating this complicated developmental stage.

What is “normal” adolescent angst

For parents, the teen years are rife with our teens exhibiting some or all the following:

When to be concerned about your teen’s anxiety

Whenever “normal” teen angst seems more extreme, parents need to pay attention. The intensity and duration of the behaviors can help a parent recognize when something is more serious. It can help to consider your teen’s behavior in terms of loudness from whispering to chattering to yelling.

Typical teen angst falls into the whispering to chattering category. When it reaches the yelling category, it is time to step in.

Teen behaviors that fall into the yelling category include:

  • Persistent complaints of anxiety, depression, fear, worry, or nervousness
  • Fears that don’t make sense
  • Persistent trouble sleeping
  • Cannabis use
  • Fixation on media
  • Intense Fear of Failure
  • Drinking – especially binge drinking
  • Avoidance of people or activities that were once enjoyable
  • Overreaction to stressors, including angry or aggressive outbursts
  • Signs of teen depression or feelings of worthlessness

The pandemic seen a rise in all forms of anxiety, according to the CDC, and teens have in many ways felt the brunt with an increase in screen use and social isolation. It can be tough to know what’s normal during typical times, but facing the fears and isolation of a pandemic has exacerbated anxiety for everyone. None of us have been immune.

Still teen angst is a normal and varied experience for every teen, and parents need not feel confused about what is teenage angst. Despite how confusing, frustrating or anxiety provoking your teen’s behavior might seem, remember some degree of discomfort is necessary for your teen to endure this intense time of growth.

Keeping communication lines open can help you and your teen maintain the communication you need to provide critical ballast during this time of transition. Despite their emerging independence, remember your teen still needs your support and love. Inside that alarmingly grown up body is still your vulnerable child and they need you.

Trust yourself to judge what is normal teen angst and what is something more serious. You know your child best, and maintaining your connection is one of the most powerful strategies you can employ to weather their angst.


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Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD