What causes teenage angst?
Any casual observer will notice…
That teenagers have significant mood swings, rapid changes in their sense of self and others, huge variations in their moral code and ideals, and all sorts of other forms of instability.
The question is, what causes teenage angst?
Certainly, the surge in hormones must have something to do with it. With the onset of the teenage years, there is a flooding of new hormones that leads to increased sexual interest, as well as probably some of the irritability.
But more than just the hormones, there seem to be massive changes afoot.
To name just a few, these changes include separation from the parents, the development of true adult autonomy, the ability to have long-term stable romantic relationships, and the eventual transition to meaningful and satisfying work and financial independence.
It can sometimes be helpful to “begin with the end in mind” and to think of all the things we expect adults in our society to be able to do, comparing that with children who enter their teenage years.
What are some of the functions that we expect adults to be able to do?
The list would certainly include:
- The ability to move out of the parents home and to live independently
- The ability to have a stable and fulfilling romantic relationship
- The ability to have and raise children, if desired
- The ability to find and engage in meaningful, productive work
- The ability to adhere to the rules and expectations of society, to join and contribute to meaningful groups, institutions, and to derive meaning from these
Now let’s compare these grown-up ideas and goals to a 12 or 13-year-old child.
A 12 or 13-year-old child finds him- or herself almost entirely dependent on his or her parents, unable for the most part to engage in stable romantic relationships and totally unprepared for autonomous living.
During the teenage years then, leading up to adulthood, massive transitions must occur. I will go into some more depth later in this article, explaining what these changes consist of, but at this point it may be helpful to realize just how much psychological upheaval is occurring during these years.
Having this perspective and understanding the psychological overhaul that is occurring can be a helpful context and framework for understanding what causes teenage angst and anxiety.
Having your entire mind undergo a complete renovation can be a very unsettling, anxiety-provoking, and frightening experience. As we will see, the significant moodiness that contributes to what causes teenage angst is also related to this psychological upheaval. This problem is compounded by the fact that the very mental structures and mechanisms that a teenager would ordinarily use to cope with all of this distress are themselves undergoing a transformation.
The result is a rocky and turbulent course that takes everybody in the family for a ride.
Before moving on to understand the details of the psychological changes and what causes teenage angst, we need to go back in time to the life of a young child below the age of five.
Spotlight On The Emotional Turmoil of Early Childhood
Have you ever noticed that childhood seems to be punctuated by two main periods of instability and intensity? The first occurs between birth and about five or six years of age, and the second occurs during the teenage years.
It is entirely normal for young children between the ages of two and five or six to have frequent temperature tantrums, unstable moods, intense anxiety related to fantastical things, and intense sibling rivalry and other battles related to place in the family.
Then, around the age of five or six, a period of calm arises.
This period between age five and about twelve is often referred to as the latency period because of the relative calm and absence of these intense and tumultuous experiences and feelings.
What is going on in the mind of a young child, and what does this have to do with the causes of teenage angst and anxiety?
The truth is that what causes angst and anxiety in a young child is directly related to the issues experienced in the teenage years.
If we think about the psychological state of a young child, one of the most notable aspects is the fact that a young child is utterly dependent on his or her parents. Every young child understands, even if only dimly, that without his or her parents, he or she could never survive.
This total dependence on the parents leads young children to be intensely focused on what their parents think about them.
If a young child comes to believe that his or her parents do not love him or her, that is not just a small problem. That is a cataclysmic rupture of the child’s psychological world.
Such an experience would lead to profound feelings of sorrow or depression, and fears related to being rejected by the parents or the loss of the parents often lead to high levels of anxiety. Most often, children are not even consciously aware of these feelings and fears, though they will often act them out and get the point across. Just think of the anxieties that occur around bedtime, when a child needs to separate from the parents, and you can see an example where children act out their anxieties related to their relationship with their parents.
What goes along automatically with this intense concern about the parents is an equally intense love for the parents and desire for their love in return. It’s no secret that young children will do just about anything to get their parents love, attention, and approval.
At this early stage children are very ego-centric, and their relationships are based mostly on getting their needs met. Young children want candy or video games; they don’t really care what’s good or convenient for their parents.
Because of this one-sided way of relating, children’s love for their parents and desire for their parent’s love has a possessive quality to it. Young children want to monopolize their parent’s love and control their access to this satisfaction.
The problem is that at some point, around the age of 3 to 5, children begin to realize that they cannot have their parents all to themselves.
Little girls who talk about marrying daddy, and little boys who dream of marrying mommy, suddenly realize that mommy and daddy are already spoken for. This realization leads to a sense of competition with each parent over the love of the other parent.
The result is a triangle among the child and the two parents, where the child simultaneously hopes to monopolize the love of each parent, primarily the parent of the opposite sex, while competing with the other parent. This situation leads to severe complications because even while competing with his or her parents, the young child also wants to be loved by that parent. How can you love and hate the same person?
Of course, I am leaving out a tremendous amount of possible variations, taking into account different sexual orientations, gender identity, and different family structures. The description that I gave above is not intended to exclude these other possibilities, but rather to present this topic in a more simplified and straightforward way. In reality, the triangular struggle occurs in all directions regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
So here we have the young child who finds him- or herself faced with a real dilemma. A little boy and a little girl find themselves in an intense triangle with the mother and father, trying to win the love of each one while simultaneously competing with the other parent as a rival.
The truth is that each child has some version of this dilemma with each parent, and what ensues is a very nasty and frightening problem. The problem is: how can the child learn to love and hate each parent at the same time, and how can the child work out this bitter conflict of simultaneously loving and struggling against each parent.
As I mentioned earlier, the child’s standing in the family is of utmost importance, and so this conflict is not some mere triviality but rather the most important and foundational aspects of the child’s emotional world at that time.
Before moving on, I want to clarify one point about the love of a young child for his or her parents. Let’s remember that a child of this young age has no concept of adult sexual or romantic relationships.
Moreover, a child of this age has a very limited verbal ability, and all of my adult descriptions that I am giving would have almost no meaning to a child. The experience of a child is much more primitive, experience-near, and based in action and a physical, sensory-based experience.
Though adult romantic relationships are ultimately built on the foundation of these young relationships with the parents, it’s important to realize that at this young age the relationships that we are discussing are not about adult sexual relationships, but rather more about a deep love and desire for possession of, and attention from, each parent.
With this framework in mind, we can gain an added perspective on sibling rivalry.
Though siblings fight over external issues such as toys and privileges, it’s important to realize that so much of the rivalry is based on the desire for the parents’ love and the perception that there may not be enough love to go around. So much of childhood anxiety, sadness, anger, and even aggression is related to these rivalries with various members of the family, including siblings, for a sense of security, love, and affection.
What happens eventually, around the age of five or six, is that the child finds a solution to this messy conflict. The solution is that, rather than have each parent to him or herself, the young child decides to be like the parents. He or she gradually models him- or herself after the parents, excepting their realistic and moral ideals as his or her own. Gradually, the child accepts that he or she cannot have the parents all to him- or herself, but that by creating an internal agency of morality and conscience modeled after the parents, he or she can have the next best thing.
This process is a complex one, but it explains how a child eventually comes to accept the rules and prohibitions of parents as his or her own. Ultimately, where as a young child may avoid certain behavior and pursue other behavior in order to avoid punishment and gain a reward, such as candy for instance, we hope that at a certain point child acts the right way because he or she wants to behave in a upstanding and moral way for the inherent pleasure and satisfaction this brings.
In this way, there is a shift from external coercion to internal principles and morals that go on to operate independently without ongoing external influence.
In extreme cases, failures in this process can lead to a lack of empathy or concern for rules and the rights of others that is sometimes seen in sociopaths and criminals in general. One of the main goals of early childhood is to navigate this process properly to lay the foundations for empathy and a sense of morality and values.
So here we have the five or six-year-old boy and girl entering the school-age years, having put this tumultuous period of love, hate, and bitter family rivalries in the past, now with a much more stable psychological structure that includes and internal version of his or her parents’ ideals.
Now of course children at such a young age are still very much influenced by what their parents think and want; however, by this age a new agency of conscience and moral ideals has been created as a solution to the earlier period of instability.
From the age of five or six to about 12, most children concern themselves with becoming industrious: doing well in school, playing games and sports, and spending time with their friends. However, in most cases the earlier emotional instability has been contained.
The Emotional Turmoil of the Teenage Years – What Causes Teenage Angst?
What happens in the teenage years, with the upsurge of hormones, is that these loving and aggressive feelings come out of hibernation. The problem is that loving and aggressive feelings from the stage of earlier childhood are very unwelcome guests in the mind of a teenager.
The presence of these feelings directed at the parents at an age when teenagers are reaching sexual maturity can be very anxiety-provoking. It is for this reason that the specific feelings and thoughts related to the parents are kept unconscious, as the conscious awareness of some of these feelings and thoughts would be totally unacceptable. These complicated feelings often contribute to what causes teenage angst.
The aggressive feelings may also be entirely unwelcome, especially as a teenager has now become physically able to do some real damage if desired. Many teenage boys and girls have no idea what to do with these feelings, which causes a significant level of angst and anxiety.
The increase in feelings of love and aggression, though, is entirely necessary and normal. How else will the peaceful sweet little boy or girl become a sexually mature adult capable of striking out on his or her own and becoming an independent adult?
This increase in frightening loving and aggressive feelings poses a further problem when they come into conflict with the teenagers personal and moral ideals. The sense of conscience and morality, derived from the parents’ and society’s rules and prohibitions, which had done such a good job of providing stability at a younger age, now find itself in conflict with much stronger foes.
The solution to these problems includes a total reworking of the teenager’s mind. The moving feelings need to mature from a childish focus on total possession or control to an adult focus on a mature, two-way reciprocal relationship. The love relationships of children are ego-centric, focused almost entirely on getting needs met and monopolizing those who can fulfill those needs. Mature adult love is meant to fulfill the needs of both partners.
At the same time, these maturing loving feelings are directed out of the family and toward people in the outside world. This transition can be exciting, but it can also lead to significant anxiety, as teenagers may be frightened and insecure about these experiences. The level of excitement itself, as well as the uncertainty about what they are feeling, causes discomfort and angst in many teenagers, much like most feelings that occur in excess.
Just as the creation of a moral sense and internalization of parental and societal ideals allowed for the management of the emotional conflicts between love and aggression in early childhood, the agencies of morality and conscience must be reworked to solve this later iteration in the teenage years.
However, there’s a difference this time. Whereas in early childhood the young child accepts his or her parents’ ideals, a teenager needs to strike out on his or her own and separate from the parents. Of course, those early ideals that were absorbed from the parents serve as the foundation for later moral and societal ideals, but now they must be modified.
This process of modifications in the agencies of moral and personal ideals leads to the frequent and often fleeting changes in moral and social fads. One week or month a teenager may be vegan, another he or she may dress in a dark and brooding style, and yet another the dark clothing is gone but he or she may dye his or her hair. Throughout the teenager years, each individual needs to sort out who he or she is, what values to believe in, what he or she wants to do professionally, and a host of other decisions. Many individuals struggle in their teenage years to decide what and who to be, and this struggle often causes angst and anxiety.
While these values and morals are changing and being reworked, it becomes difficult to maintain stable levels of self-esteem. After all, if the standard by which one measures oneself is shifting rapidly, it makes sense that the sense of self-esteem, which is a measure of how one’s real self measures up to one’s ideal self, would fluctuate widely. It would be like having a new boss every week at work. It would be pretty hard to feel good about one’s performance if the standard was shifting whimsically every week.
This understanding also explains why teenagers are often so annoyed by their parents. They are in the midst of shedding some of their parent’s ideals and values and forming their own, and since they are still mid-stream they find their parents’ recommendations or critiques unbearable. Each time their parents comment on their individual choices, it is an agonizing reminder that they are not yet fully formed and that they are still dependent on their parents. These issues related to dependence and independence also contribute to what causes teenage angst.
It makes sense, then, that once these issues are worked out and a more stable sense of self is established, with the proper psychological structures in place to quell the psychological disturbances of puberty, the seas calm and teenagers grow up. Yes, in most cases they do eventually grow up.
Research has shown that the brain undergoes a reworking of sorts during the teenage years, in which the interconnections in the brain are remodeled. This physical remodeling allows the brain to accommodate the massive changes necessary during this time of transition.
Now that we know what causes teenage angst, what can parents do about it?
First of all, I think that having this perspective on the internal world and understanding what causes teenage angst can be incredibly helpful. It’s important not to get caught up in the external details and to miss the big picture of what is occurring beneath the surface.
Parents need to support their children during this terribly difficult time. Teenagers are dealing with overwhelming feelings, urges, and anxieties, and their developing brains and minds are not yet quite ready to manage all of these feelings. The paradox is that teenagers need their parents’ support but can experience that support as a painful reminder of their independence.
Walking the tightrope of supporting teenagers while also not being too upfront about it requires a lot of judgment, and it’s always hard to teach somebody how to have judgment. Once you understand what causes teenage angst, you need to figure out how to strike the correct balance, which is difficult.
Nevertheless, I think that these recommendations are generally helpful:
- Let the little things go. Don’t get caught up in power struggles over hair style or clothing if the outcome of anger and defiance is not worth it. Remember that your teenage children are trying to decide who and what they want to be, and that may require some experimentation.
- Don’t let the big things go. Even as we let them experiment, we need to remember that teenagers are not adults and still require parents to contain them and direct them. Especially during this difficult time, teenagers may need extra limit-setting around certain serious issues such as risky sexual activity, alcohol and drug use, or criminal behavior. Despite their greatest protests, deep down most teenagers still do want parental guidance, even if they’ll never admit it.
- Remember that this too shall pass. In the great majority of cases, the turbulence and instability of the teenage years does pass. Some teenagers go through a more difficult time, but that may still be within the spectrum of normal experience.
- Look for more serious issues. If teenagers have significant levels of anxiety, depression, or drug and alcohol use, then it probably makes sense to consider getting an evaluation either by the pediatrician, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. Though it is normal for teenagers to struggle emotionally, there is a limit to how much emotional turmoil is normal and when mental disorders begin. It often requires a specialist in adolescent mental health such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist to know the difference.
Thanks for reading,
Jason Dean, MD