What is teen angst, anyway?

My last #FridayFlash was "I Weep Not For Thee", a story about love and betrayal, pain and hope.

Sounds important, doesn't it? That is, until I say that it's about TEEN love and betrayal, TEEN pain and hope.

Hmmm... now it sounds angsty.


It was a comment about teen angst by P.J. Kaiser that prompted this post. I love P.J.'s writing, and am flattered that she liked my dialogue. I was going to put all of this into a comment on that story, but I thought it deserved a separated treatment.

Angst is a feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression. What is TEEN angst, though? Is it different for teens?

Teen angst is one of those things that seems to get tossed around as a trope, or as emotional shorthand. Overreactive angst about pimples or a date for the prom, or disproportionately equivalent angst about pimples, a date for the prom AND evil wizards or vampire love.

The thing is, when you think someone loves you and respects you, and you find out that they don't ... that hurts. That's big. Anyone, no matter what age, would feel that. Your world is turned upside down, you don't know what you can count on anymore, and you are confused, lost and saddened. It's only the lack of life experience that makes their response to that pain so muddled and inexpressible when it comes to teens.

What we see as teen angst is better described more simply: pain. Sometimes the gaping maw of that pain and humiliation is so terrifying that ending life seems preferable to trying to find a way out of it, or even to accept that there IS a way out.

This is especially true if you learn the wrong lesson from betrayal in love, i.e. that since someone doesn't really love you, that you are not really lovable. It's an easy mistake to make if you've put all your emotional eggs in one basket.

A story that would address this kind of a situation should really respect the intensity of emotions. Real emotions, real intensity.


  1. I'm very flattered, Tony, by your compliment :-) i think the key phrase is "lack of life experience.". It elevates "normal" pain to life-changing levels because teens don't have the life experience to put it in proper perspective. I think about things that happened to me during my teen years and similar things in my twenties and although the events were similar, my response and resulting feelings were very different. You mentioned in a tweet that you're considering a novel based on these characters - I think you're in the zone - go for it! :-)

  2. I agree with PJ. Being a teenager does not bring the years and experience necessary to put things into PROPER perspective.

    Everything is magnified; it's the end of the world if bad things happen. And those bad things can be as simple as a parent not purchasing the thing that, "everyone else in school has, Mom, I'll be a freak if I don't have one too!"

    And heartbreak is not seen as something that can be gotten over with time, hard as it might be.

    So, yes, teen angst is pain but pain that is imagined and felt way out of proportion because the teenager doesn't know or have the emotional tools yet to manage.

    Yes, this is the book you should write.

  3. Oh now you are getting all nuanced and stuff. :-)

    While the lack of experience in how to deal with anxiety, apprehension or depression plays a major role in the differences between adult and teen angst, we can get a bit more nuanced.

    Take for example empowerment. As as an adult I can sell the house, uproot the family, move across the country and plant roots in a better place. All I need is money and will. My experience and capabilities as an adult empower me to take action, sometimes radical action, and do it.

    For example, think of role-playing games like and teenagers, and to a smaller extent first person shooters. I'm talking games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Half-Life 2, Portal.

    These games let teens control their own destiny. They are popular because they empower. Teens want to feel empowered maybe because they lack experience to deal with life issues and the game is easier to figure out, or maybe because there are other factors in their lives such as social/economic reasons.

    Anyway, I may be babbling. Fascinating topic!

  4. PJ & Marisa: I agree, the disproportionate response flows from inexperience. That's not a bad thing, or a slam on teens - it's just that new experiences are more intense than familiar ones. When you are a teen/YA, almost all of the big life experiences are new.

    Anthony: Excellent, nuance! That's what separated truth from tripe.

    You're presenting some insightful thoughts here. The powerlessness of being a teen is part what makes is so sucky. As an adult, if you try to take command of your world, you're applauded; if you try to do that as a teen, even if it's at all possible, you get shot down for trying.

    Paradoxically, once you become self-aware enough to want to change your world, and strong enough of will & personality to make it stick, then you've demonstrated yourself capable enough of taking on adult responsibilities. The burdens (and freedoms) of youth get replaced by the freedoms (and burdens) of adulthood.

    I need to incorporate this in my thinking about this story... thanks.

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