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

what is 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. And 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:

  • Feeling short-tempered
  • Emotional swings
  • Taking risks
  • Feeling self-conscious
  • Needing to spend more time with their friends
  • Physical pains
  • Playing loud music
  • Messiness
  • Rudeness
  • Sleeping more

When to be concerned

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
  • Drinking – especially binge drinking
  • Avoidance of people or activities that were once enjoyable
  • Angry or aggressive outbursts

 

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 connection you both need to provide critical ballast during this time of transition. Despite oppositional behavior and insistent independence, remember your teen is far from grown, and needs your support and love.

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

 

Looking for more help in understanding adolescent anxiety? Check out my book Hack Your Anxiety full of strategies to take control of anxiety, along with two chapters dedicated to support and parenting as well as a Summary Toolkit. 

Photo by Mikail Duran on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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