Teenage Angst: 10 Ways to Navigate the Challenge
Even if you are not a parent of a teenager, you are probably familiar with the stereotype of the sullen, angsty teenager. Adolescence is a period of development that is often characterized by mood swings, angry outbursts, and a confusing mix of physical maturity and emotional underdevelopment. But what exactly is teenage angst, and what causes it? How do you deal with angst, either as a teen or a parent of one? And when do you know when a teen’s behavior is normal angst and when it is cause for concern?
What is teenage angst?
The word “angst” actually derives from the term “existential anxiety,” which is typically defined as a feeling of panic about one’s purpose in the world and/or the meaning of life. However, teenage angst is more likely to reveal itself as frustration, anger, and confusion as they navigate the challenges and uncertainties of adolescence. Teenage angst is accompanied by physical, emotional, and social changes that can exacerbate feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
What causes teenage angst?
Although the physical changes and emotional ups and downs of adolescence are easier to identify, the teenage brain is undergoing a tremendous amount of upheaval, as well. In fact, the adolescent brain sees a degree of growth and reorganization similar to that of a newborn! Not all parts of the brain develop at equal paces, however. The emotional center of a teen’s brain, called the limbic system, tends to mature in advance of the frontal lobes, which are responsible for rational thought and behavioral inhibition. In effect, your average teenager is left with an unfortunate combination of intense emotions and an underdeveloped capacity to manage them!
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What is “normal” teenage angst?
While every teen is different, there are certain behavioral patterns common to adolescents. These patterns must be considered in the context of an individual’s personality, however. For example, some children are naturally more sensitive or introverted, so these characteristics might not be considered teenage angst.
- Mood swings
- Increased time with friends, decreased time with family
- Increased need for sleep
Is it teenage angst or depression? When to be concerned
Adolescent psychiatrist Wendy Nash Moyal recommends thinking about the “three D’s” when determining whether your adolescent’s behavior is cause for concern. What is the degree of intensity of the symptoms? What is the duration? And what is the level of dysfunction?
- Difficulty sleeping
- Social withdrawal
- Drug use or binge drinking
- Addiction to technology
- Avoidance of or disengagement from activities that were previously enjoyed
- Suicidal ideation
How to deal with teenage angst
Be home a lot and plan to be ignored, but keep your finger on the pulse of your child’s mental health and behavior. When called on, listen and be supportive.
Wendy Nash Moyal, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Keep the lines of communication open
- It might seem like your teen doesn’t want or need guidance from you, but the reality is that they need your guidance more than ever. Take time out of each day to have a conversation with your teen. Even if that conversation seems one-way, it shows your teen that you are open and available to talk.
Listen, don’t lecture
- Nothing causes a teen to shut down faster than an adult lecture. As hard as it may be not to give advice or “fix” their problems, teens will be more likely to open up if you provide a non-judgmental ear and simply validate what they are going through. Questions like, “What do you think you should do?” help your teen develop independence, confidence, and problem-solving skills.
Schedule time with your teen
- Teens’ schedules are often packed with activities, sports, homework, and social events. Make sure you prioritize some 1:1 time with your teen. Go for a walk together, or use time in the car to catch up on your teen’s life. Teens might find it easier to open up about difficult subjects when they don’t have to make eye contact.
Don’t take the behavior personally
- Teens are great at pressing parents’ buttons. Don’t take the bait! Although it’s hard not to take it personally, remember that their behavior is a product of hormones, big emotions, and relative cognitive immaturity. It might also help if you can remember what it was like for you as a teen.
Set and maintain limits
- Be clear about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Reinforce house rules around communication, curfew, technology use, etc. Remember that just as it is a teen’s job to push boundaries, it is a parent’s job to set and maintain them. Finally, be consistent. Try to avoid allowing a behavior in one situation and then condemning it in another.
Avoid power struggles
- The teenage years offer countless opportunities to engage in power struggles. Also known as “zero-sum” scenarios, power struggles occur when both teens and parents are determined to have their way. This can lead both “sides” to dig in their heels and refuse to compromise. You can avoid power struggles by being clear with your teen about what the “non-negotiables” are, and by taking the time to listen to and validate your teen’s perspective.
Set appropriate consequences
- When setting consequences for rule violations, remember the three R’s: relevant, realistic, and respectful.
- Relevant consequences help teens to see cause and effect and emphasize personal responsibility. For example, “When you come home after curfew, it causes us to worry and lose sleep. Tomorrow night, you will need to come home 2 hours before curfew to make up for it.”
- Realistic consequences are ones that you can reasonably uphold. Avoid empty threats like “That’s it– you’ve lost your car privileges!” This consequence is not only unreasonable in the context of missing curfew one night, but it is also something you are unlikely to follow through on due to the logistics of having to drive your teen everywhere.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consequences should be respectful. Use a normal tone of voice and avoid sarcasm. Direct the consequence at the behavior, not the teen. Be clear, concise, and firm. If you prattle on about how inconsiderate your teen is, they will just tune you out.
Model healthy behaviors
- Your teen is looking at you to set an example of healthy adulthood. Consider how you use and talk about alcohol or other drugs. “I need a drink after the day that I have had!” might seem benign and is accepted in many cultures, but it effectively teaches your teen that alcohol is the way to destress. Make sure you are modeling other stress management techniques like exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. Effective parenting starts with effective self-care!
Don’t be afraid to ask about suicide, self-injury, or other risky behaviors
- While you might worry about the “power of suggestion,” research indicates that talking to your teen about suicide, self-injury, and other risks actually makes it less likely that they will engage in these behaviors. It’s important, however, to balance oversight with respect for your teen’s privacy and oversight with autonomy. Be clear with your teen about what information they can and cannot keep private. Likewise, guiding decisions is more effective than trying to control your teen. Help your teen make a pros and cons list and identify the natural consequences of certain behaviors instead of making vague or empty threats.
Don’t ignore requests for help, and don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself!
- Dr. Wendy Nash Moyal reports that she regularly sees adolescents who ask their parents multiple times for a therapist before the parent takes action. Ignoring a teen’s request for help can shut down communication, reduce feelings of personal efficacy, and lead to more risky cries for help. Likewise, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the task of parenting your teen, reach out for help! Many adolescent therapists also provide parental guidance and support.
The teen years are full of physical, emotional, and social changes. Your teen might be loving and agreeable one day, sullen and argumentative the next. While it’s natural to feel helpless when this teenage angst is directed at you, there are things that you can do to help guide your teen through this tumultuous time. Be available. Keep your eyes and ears, and trust your gut if it seems like something is “off” for your teen. Don’t avoid difficult conversations, and don’t wait to get help. Above all, take care of yourself so that you can continue to be a supportive, effective parent.