Teen dealing with stress.

Storm and Stress in Teens, and How Parents Can Best Support Them

The teen years can be full of ups and downs, and one term that parents may have heard to describe this is “storm and stress.” While all of the changes of adolescence can feel like stormy weather sometimes, most teens experience positive changes as well. Understanding why adolescence can be a time of increased conflict, and how to respond, can help parents support their teens with confidence

What is Storm and Stress?

“Storm and Stress” was a term coined in 1904 by the first president of the American Psychological Association, G. Stanley Hall. While he was far from the first (or last) person to observe the teen years being a time of heightened stress and emotion, his terminology had a ring of truth and has stuck over time. Hall’s storm and stress model has limited usefulness today. The work is 120 years old and was heavily influenced by dominant cultural views of his time, but the observation that teens experience intense changes is certainly still true.

While most teens experience an increase in stress and conflict, it’s not accurate to say this is a defining or universal experience. In fact, research has shown that, while all teens experience stressors, most have equal or even more positive experiences too. 

One element of Hall’s theory that has held true over time is that a driving factor for the “storm and stress” period is the tension between a teen’s growing desire for independence, and a parent’s desire to protect their child from harm. A yearning to have adult experiences that they are not developmentally ready for is the central element of Hall’s explanation of teen stress. 

While not universal, most teens (and parents of teens) can agree that trying to navigate growing independence is not easy and can result in arguments. A better understanding of adolescent development can help empower parents and teens to reduce conflict, and learn more effective ways to manage stress.

Why does Storm and Stress happen?

The teen years are a rapid time of physical, emotional, and neurological growth, matched only by toddlerhood in the scope and pace of change. 

These are just some of the changes teens experience during adolescent development:

  • Rapid physical growth - sudden gains in height and weight
  • Emergence of puberty and physical sexual maturity
  • Intense hormonal changes that prompt physical and emotional growth
  • Increased interest in socializing and first romantic interests
  • More concrete thoughts about the future and more desire for control over planning and choices
  • More thoughts about identity and interest in trying new things
  • More risk-taking behavior and desire for space from family and parents

It’s important for parents to know that many of these changes are neurologically and biologically driven to happen. It’s natural and normal for teens to be self-focused, more emotional, and to develop new and even risky ideas and behavior sometimes. 

It’s also normal for teens to argue with their parents. This is because teens are developing an independent identity for the first time, and having ideas, opinions, and beliefs that are “separate” from their family sometimes is the only way they can “try out” a new identity. Some tension around this is normal, and even a necessary part of development for many adolescents. 

If your teen seems angrier and more distant than usual, remember that demonstrating consistent care and stability for your teen is the best way to outlast any challenge. But if these changes feel more persistent or extreme for your family, this can be an ideal time to connect with a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing.

When to worry about Storm and Stress

It can be hard to know how seriously to take an argument and “when to worry” about the stress your teen is under. Below are a few examples of typical teen behavior, paired with examples of the same behavior when it needs more attention:

Typical Teen Behavior

  • Wanting more privacy; Being alone in their room more
  • Being irritable and grumpy with parents; Arguing with parents but open to repairing the conflict with help
  • Occasional heightened emotions; Feeling sad or self-conscious at times
  • Sudden new interests in music, clothes, and hobbies; Some impulsive decisions or risky behavior, but receptive to support and repair
  • Occasional trouble in school; Some trouble focusing on work or hobbies

Needs More Attention

  • Isolating consistently for a week or more; withdrawing from both friends and family
  • Frequent angry outbursts; Aggression; Unwillingness to reconcile even after space for calming
  • Persistent sadness; Hopeless feelings; Feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem
  • Abrupt change in social groups or intense conflict with friends; Repeated risky behavior without interest in receiving support
  • Dramatic change in school performance; Inability to focus on work or conversations

A good “rule of thumb” for when to worry or seek help for your teen is to ask yourself, “is this abrupt, extreme, or persistent?” If it’s one of those criteria, it warrants more attention. If it’s two or all three, this is likely more than typical Storm and Stress, and it may be time to seek help. The good news is that a therapist experienced in working with teens will be equipped to help with typical storm and stress, and beyond.

How to support a stormy teen:

It can be really hard to watch your teen go through intense emotions and conflicts. It can also put strain on the entire family to have a “stormy” teen at home. Here are a few ideas for how to support a teen hitting the “storm and stress” phase hard:

1. Lean into new experiences

Like the psychologist, Hall, described, part of the source of “storm and stress” is the tension between teens wanting new experiences, and parents worrying they’re not ready for them. It’s helpful to think of what experiences you might be able to say “yes” to, or even participate in with your teen. Instead of automatically shutting down their ideas, try to imagine how you can help your teen explore some new experiences safely.

2. Pair freedom with support

Most parents find it’s beneficial to allow your teen some more freedom that aligns with their age and development—and this can also help to ease some “storming.” This looks different for every family, but might involve allowing for more alone time, longer time out with friends, or the ability to go places without parents. 

It’s normal to feel nervous about these changes. As your teen becomes older, the way you support them (and remind them of this support) can also evolve. The ability to stay out later, for example, can be paired with new expectations for communication. Give your family time to adjust to new freedoms, and remember that the best way to cope with challenges is consistency and caring.

3. Keep checking

Even if your teen is irritable or even angry with you, keep checking on them. Remember, the intense emotions of the adolescent years are new for them, too! If a conflict becomes heated, allow some space, but do your best to check back in later. Guide your teen through the process of repair. Conflict happens in every family, and learning how to navigate conflict will prove invaluable for your teen as they grow into an adult.

4. Therapy

The teen years can be a perfect time to begin therapy. Even if you believe your teen’s “storm and stress” is normal, it never hurts to have another supportive adult guiding them through this time. The teen years are also when mental health concerns are first emerging for many people, so setting your teen up with the right therapist early can help them navigate challenges with much more confidence.

While the adolescent years may not be filled with “storm and stress” for most teens, it is a time of big changes. Accepting your changing teen with love and support, and finding the right resources for them, can have a large impact on their wellbeing. If you believe your teen is becoming extra “stormy,” take the time to reach out to the experienced therapists at Joon. Our experts can help with new ideas for weathering storms and celebrating change.

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Is your teen struggling with high-stress?

October 18, 2023
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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