What Is Teenage Angst & When To Be Concerned From A Psychologist Who Knows
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 brought myriad parental challenges from distance learning to social isolation, and we got to see first hand more about our teen’s life. Few teens escaped experiencing the uptick in anxiety felt worldwide during the pandemic, and many of those feelings are still lingering today. Indeed 90% of US adults we are facing a mental health crisis. This can leave parents 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:
- Feeling short-tempered
- Emotional swings
- Taking risks
- Feeling self-conscious, especially with regards to relationships
- Needing to spend more time with their friends
- Physical pains
- Playing loud music
- Sleeping more
Three biggest areas teens get angsty about
1. Friends and belonging
Like all adults, teens need to feel a sense of belonging, and peer group affiliation is massively important in adolescence. As kids mature out of childhood into adolescence and young adulthood, peer group and peer affiliations increasingly help teens identify who they are and who they want to be.
No longer do teens look to parents and family to define themselves and their values; instead teens look outward to find friends who share interests and values, or represent the kind of people they want to be. In this sense, belonging becomes central to a teen’s sense of self esteem and worthiness, and can cause a great deal of focus and concern.
2. Social Media
Social media can be a wonderful place to affiliate and connect with peers, but can also fuel feelings of disconnection and exclusion. After all, social media requires users to provide curated glimpses of themselves and their life that may not represent a friend’s “real” experience. To use social media safely, teens need to understand this technology and how to protect themselves from harm.
The American Psychological Association has recently released recommendations for social media use in adolescents outlining 10 points of guidance to educators, parents, policymakers, mental health and health practitioners to ensure adolescents develop healthy social media practices.
Key recommendations include:
- tailoring social media use, functionality and permissions to developmental capabilities of teens
- improving digital literacy as teens mature
- minimizing exposure to content that depicts unhealthy and risky behavior, promotes discrimination, prejudice or hate, or focuses on appearance and beauty
- monitoring the impact of social media on overall functioning, sleep, or mood
3. Body image and appearance
Body image and attractiveness remain key concerns of adolescents as they strive to maintain inclusion and peer group connections while their bodies undergo the most dramatic transformations of their life. Teens’ judgement can be hijacked by newly felt urges and energy, as well as a newfound interest in appearance and attractiveness.
While these are normal feelings for all teens, an outsized focus on attractiveness and one’s body can seed the beginnings of unhealthy behaviors and habits that can evolve into disorders fairly quickly. Normalizing physical changes and supporting a teen’s positive body image is important for parents and caregivers as teens navigate these tumultuous changes.
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.
- 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
Recent years have 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 the last few years has exacerbated anxiety for everyone. None of us have been immune.
Still technology and screen use are here to stay, and collectively we have to adapt to this rapidly changing landscape. The APA’s recent health advisory on social media use underscores the importance of helping teens learn about technology – the good and the bad – so they can evolve a healthy relationship with it. Giving teens the tools to take control of this important stressor will continue to help limit the angst it can cause.
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.
Looking for more help understanding how anxiety can be a tool rather than a burden? Check out my Anxiety Myths Navigator and discover the 12 key anxiety myths that are holding you back and how reframing your thinking can change your relationship with anxiety, and your life. Offered at a huge discount for a limited time, claim your spot here.
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash