Teens experience a lot of pressure while exploring and developing their sense of self, pushing boundaries and limits of their independence, and planning for the future. Teenage angst is the feeling of being overwhelmed, anxious, rejected, or even unwanted. Teens can feel better by understanding what is common, and what are greater concerns than the average teenage development.
As always, talking to a therapist can help you along your journey as you navigate teenage development.
What Is Teenage Angst?
Teenage angst involves frustration, rebellion, attitude and an overall irritable outlook on life. The teenage years are a period in your child’s life when they move beyond innocent childhood and start to test limits and boundaries as they approach adulthood. Teenage angst can happen as a result of disappointment in being told no when limits and boundaries are denied. Teenagers crave independence and freedom without the true ability to understand or predict all of the responsibilities that get factored in, as brain development is not fully complete until 24 years of age.
What Is “Normal” Teen Angst & What’s a Problem?
You know your child best, and witnessing your child’s attitude and behavior change, perhaps seemingly overnight, may come as a shock. While “normal” is subjective and questionable, there are common characteristics and signs of teenage angst. When these behaviors start to become extreme and disruptive and interfere with daily life, is when it starts to become more of a cause for concern, and grounds to seek professional help and support.
Here are some of the more common and “normal” signs of teen angst:
- Changes in interests (such as music, hobbies, activities)
- Changes in friend groups
- Changes in clothing style
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in mood
- Changes in academic performance
- Being more secretive or dismissive of information
- Increase in rebellious behavior and rule-breaking
However, if these behaviors continue or become extreme, it can be a sign of more serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and/or self-harm and suicidality, and may require professional help.
Signs That It’s More Than Teenage Angst
If angsty behaviors continue or worsen, you may need to watch for signs of depression, anxiety, or potential for self-harm behavior. Signs may include extreme sensitivity, difficulty concentrating, poor personal hygiene, or avoidance behaviors. There is a lot of overlap in emotional and behavioral changes that occur in a teen experiencing depression, anxiety, self-harm and/or suicidality. Keep in mind they don’t have to experience all of these changes in order for your teen to receive help from a professional.
Potential Signs of Depression
Emotional changes such as:5
- Crying for no reason
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, and remembering things
- Irritability and quick to become frustrated or overwhelmed
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or need to receive frequent reassurance
- Grim and bleak perspective on life
Behavioral changes such as:5
- Changes in sleep patterns, either insomnia or sleeping too much,
- Marked restlessness and inability to sit still,
- Changes in appetite, either resulting in weight loss or weight gain
- Use of alcohol and/or drugs,
- Noticeable decrease in school performance and enthusiasm,
- Social isolation from both friends and family,
- Less care of physical hygiene and appearance
Potential Signs of Anxiety
Emotional changes such as:6
- Fear of being away from parents
- Extreme fear about specific things or situations
- Frequent worry and fear about the future
- Hyperfixation of their appearance
- Verbalizing frequently concern that something bad is going to happen
- Sudden, intense and unexpected fear that often result in physical symptoms
Behavioral changes such as:6
- Sleep problems
- Chronic complaints of stomach aches or headaches
- Avoidance of activities
- School avoidance and/or refusal
- Drastic changes in routines
Potential Signs of Self-Harm & Suicidality
Emotional changes such as:7
- Verbalizing feeling trapped or hopeless, either in general or about a specific situation
- Frequent mood swings
- Extreme sensitivity to feedback or rejection
- Changes in appetite
- Decrease in motivation or interests
Behavioral changes such as:7
- Social isolation from peers and family
- Talking or writing about suicide – such as making statements like “I won’t be around much longer”
- Increase in use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Wearing long sleeves, hoodies, pants, etc. in warmer climates to hide physical signs of self-harm (cutting, burning, picking, etc.)
- Engaging in self-destructive or risky behaviors
- Giving away their possessions without any reason
- Sudden burst in happiness (often occurs right before a plan to die by suicide)
What Causes Teen Angst?
Teens experience angst for many different reasons. Dustin Webb, administrator of Texas Health, helps to explain the cause of teenage angst as a “push for privacy and independence.”1 Becoming more independent is a vital part to learning how to become an adult, but it takes time and can be difficult to navigate.
The teenage brain is still developing in size, reaching its biggest size at 11 and 14 years of age, in girls and boys respectively. In addition to physical size, the teenage brain doesn’t stop maturing and developing until the mid- to late twenties. Skills such as planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses are not fully developed in the teenage brain.2
There may also be situational causes of teen angst, like lack of sleep. With all the brain development going on during this time, teens need adequate sleep. NIMH recommends teens get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night. With proper care and support they’ll be a successful adult in no time. Teenagers face a lot of changes throughout this time, from the change of schools, friendships, and even their interests. They begin to find themselves thinking more and more about the future, which can bring on feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Prevalence of Anxiety & Depression in Teens
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published statistics for common diagnoses in adolescents: These include attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (9.4%), behavioral or conduct problems (7.4%), anxiety (7.1%), and depression (3.2%).3
Here’s a chart published by the CDC to help you visualize the prevalence of mental health disorders in teenagers, ages 12-17:3
Alarmingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15 to 19 years as of 2018.4 The CDC continues to highlight the importance of access to mental health treatment by stating, “early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental disorders.”4 This is all the more reason to seek help from a professional as soon as possible.
Some people find relief and comfort in having a diagnosis, as this helps not only professionals in finding the right treatment tailored for you, but helping other individuals with similar diagnoses find support and resources.
10 Tips for How to Help Your Angsty Teen
Before you begin jumping to conclusions and forcing your teen to open up to you, you have to take a few minutes for some self-reflection. Are you approachable and nonjudgmental? Are you offering solutions or advice without permission? Are you continuing to bring things up after your teen has asked you to stop? These are some of the more common barriers that my teenage clients share during sessions. Having open and clear communication is the first step in building trust and connection.
Here are ten ways to support a teen dealing with angst and other difficult emotions:
1. Make Time for Them
As the world continues to turn, and tension rises, make sure you and your teen find things to do together. Some families may be blended, or welcoming younger sibling(s). It’s normal for the attention to shift, but making a point to make time for your teen is valuable.
Pro tip: showing genuine interest in things that they enjoy goes a long way—yes… even TikTok.
2. Encourage Healthy Sleep Habits
This one is scientifically backed, but much more difficult to practice. Helping your teen build a sleep routine will help them in the long run! Recalling all of the development that happens to the adolescent brain, overall functioning improves when we have adequate sleep.
Pro tip: Model positive sleep habits yourself by using guided meditation for deep sleep, reading a book or drinking some calming tea. Teens already know they need more sleep, but modeling this behavior with them helps them follow through.
3. Give Your Teen the Space They Need
It may be difficult as their parent or guardian to watch your teen struggle with their feelings, but allowing them the opportunity to problem-solve on their own will encourage them to take one more step closer to independence. As a therapist, I give teens the space that they need during sessions, helping them express their need for space with their parents, while also figuring out ways to cope with their stressors.
Most of the teens I see share a similar desire of wanting space to be able to think and reflect on their own, and at times may have difficulty admitting they *may* need your guidance. The thing about giving your teen space is that they know they can come to you when they need to. This happens because of the trust and open communication you developed earlier.
Pro tip: stop pushing when they say “stop” or state they don’t want to talk about it right now.
4. Ask Your Teen Directly How You Can Help
Your teen usually knows how they want to be helped, and you may be surprised by their response. Most of the time they’re not looking for a solution, per say, but rather space to be heard. Sometimes they just want a hug and to be told that their feelings will pass or are validated. Sometimes they need to drive around with you and grab a snack. It is more than okay for your teen to not know how they can be helped either.
If they’re not bringing up seeing a therapist, ask them if they think talking to someone who isn’t their parent or guardian might be helpful. Do not be afraid to be the one to begin tough conversations about mental health. If you feel it is helpful, ask your teen if they want to hear how you handled a similar situation when you were their age.
Pro tip: even if your situation may not have been handled in the best way, you can share how you wish you could’ve handled it differently knowing the things that you know now.
5. Try Journaling to Express Thoughts & Feelings
Your teen may already be doing this on their own, but if not, encourage them to think about using a journal to express their thoughts and feelings, a great mindfulness practice. Journaling does not look the same for everyone, and allow your teen to develop a style on their own. Offer to help them buy a journal or even self-help workbooks or journal prompt books.
Again, a major theme is space and privacy, especially when it comes to their journals. Allow your teen the freedom to share what they’ve written or drawn, only if they choose to do so – no snooping!
Pro tip: It is healthy for everyone to find some sort of outlet to not bottle up emotions, and journaling is one of the best ways to do so.
6. Keep It Real
Teens are arriving at a point in their lives where some of their childhood fantasies and daydreams no longer feel realistic or possible. Teens are able to have a better grasp on reality and can often tell when adults in their lives are trying to hide things from them. Most of the time, adults do this to “protect” them, but trust me when I say this, your teen knows. They are no longer as naive as they once were, and the less you try to hide from them the better.
Of course, having boundaries is equally important and as their parent or guardian your job is not to be their best friend, but rather someone they can rely on. If something they are going through is tough, admit that, hold that space for them.
Pro tip: sugar coating and bandaids are no longer quick-fixes for heartbreak and stress relief.
7. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Chances are your teen is feeling down about themselves in one area of their life or another. This can be feeling insecure about their looks, their friendships, their grades, or even their relationship with their family. Take a few minutes each day to remind your teen how much they matter to you and how much they mean to you.
Some may tolerate the “mushy-gushy” verbal praise, and others might think you’re weird. However your language is to express gratitude, take some time to show it. Do not just assume your teen knows how much you love and care about them.
Pro tip: there’s more to be proud about than just good grades in school.
8. Remember That It Isn’t Personal
Try your best to not take it personally during this season in parenthood. Chances are your teenager will have some “low-blows” and “painful digs” that hit home, but know that this is one of the most challenging and confusing parts of your child’s life. The way you navigate teenage angst is critical to the relationship you maintain in the future as they enter into adulthood.
Keeping healthy boundaries and learning to let things go will be good for both you and your teen’s sanity. Taking it personally will only build resentment towards your teen.
Pro tip: give your teen and yourself the same grace by using affirmations that help you stay calm and help to maintain healthy boundaries. Try repeating phrases such as, “I know in my heart my teen loves and cares about me. I know that they are not trying to offend me.” “I choose to let go of the hurtful and painful things they have said to me and will not take it personally.”
9. Have a YES day
Similar to making time for your teen, have a designated day where you say “yes” to just about anything and everything that your teen wants to do. You may be surprised at what your teen says they want to do. Allowing your teen to be in charge of what you two do together for the day can be a really fun and engaging way to gain insight into your teen’s interests and decision making.
Pro tip: There could be some limitations and ground rules for what they can and cannot ask for, such as a new piercing or getting a tattoo. You can also create a budget on how much they can spend or how far they can travel. The idea is to allow your teen to experience freedom in a safe and supportive way.
10. Open Door & Code Words
One of the best things you can do for your teenager is to establish an “open door policy” where your teen feels comfortable coming to you to talk about things that are troubling them. The more trust they have with you, the safer they will be in risky or dangerous situations.
You can even have a code word or phrase that your teen can use when around peers or in a situation where they feel uncomfortable. This often comes with a no-questions-asked, no lecture agreement. Your teen knowing that they aren’t going to be bombarded with questions or lectures will make them more likely to reach out and ask for help when it counts the most. Your teen will most likely open up to you about the situation that caused them to use the code word and chances are they are practicing good judgment by asking for help.
Pro tip: It may be difficult to not ask any questions or limit the lecture, but it is important in building trust and maintaining the open door environment you are trying to establish.
Treatment for Depression & Anxiety in Teenagers
A lot of times, people turn to professional help as a last resort in addressing their problems. The secret is, you and your teen don’t have to wait until they are at “rock bottom” to ask for help. The sooner you and your teen begin talking about and exploring solutions to problems or stressors, the sooner everyone can feel better.
As a parent, it’s important to allow some space for your child to develop and become an adult. However, if teenage angst turns into something deeper and more disruptive, that’s when you should seek help from a professional. When it appears that your adolescent cannot seem to shake the feelings for more than a couple of weeks, or the hopelessness leaves them feeling really heavy, to the extent that even the slightest things seem to take an enormous amount of effort, they’d benefit from seeking treatment.
Additionally, if it appears that your teen seems completely out of touch with reality, unrecognizable to themselves or others around them, and cannot stand being around others or doing anything they have previously enjoyed, these are definitely things you and your teen want to address sooner rather than later, with the help of a professional.
Getting Help for Teenage Angst
It’s best to talk to your teen’s pediatrician or medical provider to make sure there are no underlying medical issues that can be causing these symptoms. More often than not, it is recommended to have your teen talk to a therapist about what they are going through. Your teen may or may not be enthusiastic about going to therapy, so it’s helpful to allow your teen to make some of the decisions when finding the right therapist, keeping in mind the therapy is for them.
As a therapist who specializes in working with teens and young adults, I understand the importance of building trust with your teen. Often, once your teen realizes that the therapist’s role is not necessarily to be another adult in their life telling them what to do, they begin to open up and talk about what’s going on in their world. Teens can feel hesitant about sharing things with their therapist out of fear it will be discussed with their parents, so confidentiality and privacy are essential to the therapeutic relationship.
Individual therapy, although the most common, is not the only way your teen can find support. Depending on the level of severity or impact on quality of life, your teen may find attending group therapy more supportive. Groups can either be offered as a peer support group, where they are less structured and run by those in a similar situation, or as a process group where there is a therapist who is leading group discussion, often with a topic or educational skill being taught. In both settings, group therapy offers another layer of support and community for your teen.
In my opinion and professional experience, there are pros and cons to both individual and group therapy, and if it is available to your teen, I encourage them to try both!
How to Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist may seem daunting, but it’s an important step in getting help for teen angst. Using an online directory, asking friends or local community members for recommendations, and even national organizations are a few of the ways to find a list of therapists in your area.
Even if it is not advertised, ask the therapist or counselor if they offer free phone consultations. This way, both you and your teen can spend some time talking to the therapist before scheduling the initial appointment. This helps to see if the therapist may be a good fit for your teenager’s needs.
Cost of Therapy
The cost of therapy depends on a handful of things. You will always have the most freedom and flexibility when you choose to pay out-of-pocket for mental health services, but may be financially limited to do so. Paying out-of-pocket may range as low as $60 a session to upwards of $200+ a session, depending on level of experience, location, and type of services.
Depending on your insurance plan and the therapist’s policies, you may be able to submit for reimbursement to get some of the money that you have paid out-of-pocket. Insurance is commonly used to help find a therapist that is local and affordable, often leaving you responsible for your co-pay, which typically ranges anywhere from $5 to upwards of $50 or more. Knowing the costs upfront will help you budget costs to support your teen for ongoing and consistent treatment.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Teen Angst
Even if you think your teen isn’t listening, they most likely are. I’m not saying the surface-level and every day discussions about how their room needs to be cleaned or dishes to be washed “listening.” I’m talking about going deeper. Expressing to your teen how much you love and support them, how you are proud of them, and that you’re here to help when they need it.
Explain to your teen that, although feeling sad or depressed is uncomfortable, they’re not alone. The more you are comfortable and open with mental health, the more opportunity for trust to be built. With that being said, as a parent it is important to not rely on your teen as your own personal therapist or sounding board. Make sure as the parent or guardian that you have your own support system that does not make your teen the sole supporter. Finding a therapist or safe space to open up is equally important for you!