The Angsty Teen: What is “Teen Angst”, When to Worry, and How to Support Your Teen

Pretty much every parent of a teen has had this experience - your once pretty easygoing, or at least pretty predictable, kid is now, grumpy, negative, and experiencing mood swings. They seem to exude misery. At every opportunity, they cover their head with a hoodie & disappear into their room to fall into a hole of YouTube videos & TikToks. 

You start to wonder - is my teen ok? Is this just those “teen years” everyone talks about, or is it something more? Should I be worried about their mental health?  

In fact we’ve coined a phrase for this all-too-common stage - teenage angst. In this article, we cover the definition of teen angst, causes, and how to know when to step in and seek help.

What is “Teen Angst”?

The word angst actually means “fear” or “dread” in German. Perhaps more relevant to the teen experience, though, angst also has a history in existential philosophy. Here, angst is very specifically the human condition of being anguished about the hugeness of the world, our role in it, and all the possibilities and choices ahead in one’s life.

Which is probably exactly what is going on for most teens. There is so much rapid change during the teenage years - bodies, social relationships, expectations. And simultaneously there’s so much to figure out - identity, relationships, future. All happening in a world in which news and social media send a million images and messages straight to their phone every day. Talk about overwhelming! And terrifying!

Enter teen angst - for many teens, this period of rapid change, personal doubt, and world pressure shows up as an emotional mixed bag of anxiety, frustration, and/or insecurity. This can certainly affect the mental health of teens, and parents are left not knowing what to expect, what to do, or when to worry.

It’s easier to understand our teens’ moods when they’re clearly tied to specific events or triggers. We get it when our teen is anxious about a test, or frustrated with a sibling, or insecure about their appearance - we may not agree that the situation merits the emotional response but we can at least see the cause-effect relationship.

But angst is more… angsty. It is more of a general mood state, directed at everything and nothing at the same time. Previously well-adjusted kids become brooding, grumpy, and withdrawn. Previously shy or anxious kids often become even more so, worrying us with their bouts of paralyzing panic and emotional changes. Previously high-spirited or emotionally expressive kids can become angry, outspoken, or experience mood swings. 

What Causes Teen Angst?

There is no one clear cause for teen angst, and different kids are distressed by different stressors. But some things we know are true of all teens that likely contribute to their negative moods:

  1. Changing bodies: In adolescence, bodies are changing rapidly. Some of these changes are obvious (height, body shape) but others are less obvious (hormones, neurotransmitters). But over the period of several years teens are living in bodies that are rapidly changing and thus constantly require new adjustments to understand. This can be very disconcerting.
  1. New demands and challenges: Their lives are changing rapidly. School brings new demands and challenges. There is pressure to achieve and perform. Friendships are more complicated. Romantic relationships are new terrain. There’s a lot to manage, and all of this can impact mental health.
  1. Global issues: Their worlds are big and complex. Constant access to worldwide news coverage brings existential awareness of big issues – climate, poverty, natural disaster, war. Constant access to social media brings very personal opportunities for social comparison. It’s a lot of data, and much of it stressful.
  1. Brain changes: Their brains are also changing rapidly. Unfortunately, some of the helpful brain changes (the abilities to regulate emotions, manage attention, and organize behavior) occur much later in development – into their early 20s in fact. So they are handling changing bodies, new demands, and increased stress with brains underdeveloped to effectively understand, cope, or respond to such inputs.

This imbalance – a lot of stress and change to manage without fully developed resources to manage it – is behind a lot of teen angst.

When Should I Worry My Teen is Not OK?

While most teens will have occasional periods of low mood, anxiety, insecurity, and moodiness, for some teens these periods become long enough or problematic enough to cause worry. How do I know when my teen is no longer experiencing relatively normal “teen angst” but has developed anxiety or depression?

There are some changes in mood and behavior that are pretty common and likely not cause for concern. This includes:

  • Wanting to spend more time alone or with friends
  • Experimenting with appearance, such as changing clothing or hair styles
  • Testing boundaries with arguments or violations of family rules
  • Having days where they seem down, anxious, or don’t want to do anything
  • Voicing new opinions strongly or criticizing others’ opinions

As long as they are keeping themselves safe and fulfilling obligations (such as school attendance), likely these changes are in the normal range.

We worry when we see marked changes to mood or behavior that lasts a long time or starts to negatively impact day-to-day functioning. This can include:

  • Anxiety that interferes with functioning, or panic attacks
  • Feeling hopeless or like there’s nothing to look forward to; being unable to enjoy anything
  • Engaging in self-harming or dangerous behaviors such as self-injury or substance use
  • Skipping school or getting in trouble
  • Isolating from friends or family
  • Significant changes to sleep or appetite
  • Talking about suicide or making statements such as “I’d be better off dead”

If you notice any of these behaviors, or the negative mood lasts a long time (2 or more weeks persistently), consider talking to your teen and getting them some professional help.

What Can Help My Teen?

If you’re worried your teen is anxious, depressed, or suicidal, talk to them about your concerns. You may also want them to be evaluated by an expert for conditions like anxiety disorders or teen depression. Your pediatrician can be a good place to start. Encouraging your teen to speak to a therapist is also a great option. Therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating teen anxiety and depression.  

If you’d like to explore therapy options and see how Joon Care can support your teen and family, you can schedule a free consultation call with our team.

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February 7, 2023
Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University, where she previously chaired the Clinical Psychology PhD program and continues to supervise doctoral trainees.

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