Monday, January 17, 2011

Demystification: Adolescent = Angst?

So ... I haven't been a teenager for awhile. The voice in my head is very much the same, I think, and that's the voice with which I write. But I'm definitely an adult. And as an adult, my exposure to teenagers and children in general has admittedly been skewed.

I work with kids who are having a rough go of things.

But--are the teen years automatically a time of terrible angst? Turmoil? Suffering? Conflict? Is that a requirement to get your I've-been-a-teen card punched when you turn 20?

As it turns out ... No.

I mean, sure, some teens find the adolescent years incredibly painful. I've already blogged about the incidence of depression in teenagers, as well as relationship violence.

But that's only some. Not all.

Research shows that only about 20% of kids experience significant conflict and emotional upset during these years. And many of those kids have other risk factors (for example, some disruption in their family or some genetic predisposition to mental illness). Twenty percent is still a lot. It means that in every high school clasroom, there are at least a few kids who are having a very tough time. But ...

That leaves 80% who experience the teen years as (mostly) a time of happiness and fun. In other words, the idea that adolescence is automatically a time of angsty suffering is ... a myth.

Are you surprised?

Well, if you base your understanding of reality on YA literature, you might be.

You know why that is, right? Conflict keeps us interested. Disruption and trauma and drama ... it keeps us reading. And I don't think it's because we're just curious about the train wreck, actually. I think it helps us, whether we're adults or teens.

If you were or are one of those for whom adolescence is a nonstop tunnel o'suffering, then these books can help you KNOW you're not alone. You can relate to the characters. You can put words to your own struggle. And you can connect with other readers who feel the same way.

If you were or are one of those for whom adolescence is pretty ok, well, books about depression and drug abuse and suicide and rape and bullying can help you, too. They help you understand where others might be coming from. They help you be grateful for what you have. But also ... they let you explore. I think we all need that to some extent--to roam, in a safe way, the bounds of the world and all the things that can happen, even if they haven't happened to you.

This is one of the reasons I feel so sad about the outrage over books that expose some of the ugly things that happen to teens. However, because of the complexity of that issue, that's a post for another time.

Speaking of posts, be sure to check out Mental Health Monday at Laura's blog, and Medical Mondays on Lydia's blog.

What do you think about the portrayal of adolescent angst in YA lit? What about television/movies (I don't know about you, but I think there's a difference)? Realistic? Helpful? Dangerous? Misleading? Healing? All of the above?


  1. This is a great post. I agree. I wasn't all that angsty in my teen years either (much morese in adulthood, LOL). I do however think we represent the angst years more in novels myself and many others I read - but then again, I guess it does make for better fiction?

  2. Interesting post!

    I agree that the drama in teen movies, books, etc is "needed" for the tension angle...I also agree it skews our perceptions of teenness.

    I consider the teen years to be the time of "extreme" emotions--part of normal development, I guess. Us old fogeys out there forget that it's normal to "feel" and feel intensely during that time. On the other hand, some people carry on the intense emotions right through adulthood, LOL!

    Hmmm, I'm gonna be thinking about this one...


  3. I think a lot of teens aren't suffering and going through drama but it is what brings about the conflict. I also think teens (and myself) enjoy reading about people in trouble. Thus the angst.

  4. I think portrayal of teenage angst is helpful. A teen doesn't always know that what they're feeling is normal or OK and will hopefully one day pass. If they can find an outlet for their feelings through books and movies, I say why not?

  5. I wasn't angsty in my teenager years, either. I was bullied as child, but those where the days when you could punch a kid in the face and pretty much get away with it. LoL. It was difficult to grow up like that, but I wouldn't say I was angsty.

    As for books and TV's shows, I'm not incredibly fond of them. I don't let the offspring watch/read things that talk about a lot of bad stuff. Sure, it might be sheltering her, but hey, why should she have to read/see that stuff if her life is happy and somewhat normal? For a child (my daugters age), I think it would skew her perception of the world and how most teenagers are. And you've just shown that only 20% have these fiction problems.

    IDK ... maybe I should have a discussion with her about it. Thought provoking post!


  6. are you serious? only 20%?!?! that shocks me!
    i try to raise my sons (in an age appropriate way) to understand that not everyone has a happy life like they do. i don't think making them aware of problems that others have brings them harm... i think it helps build empathy and compassion... it helps them not judge others. i still think everyone has their stories to tell, so i don't think authors need to force controversy into their novels to have a story... i don't know! great post (as usual!)!!

  7. Amazing post, as usual :D

    Yep, I think YA books with a ton of angst need to be read, but aspiring authors shouldn't think that's the only way to write authentic YA. Teens make choices, have different tastes, and want different things. The way someone perceives an experience isn't the same way another someone will. I think teens deserve more respect than putting them in a box, whether it's in YA/TV/movies, or real life.

    In terms of how YA books/TV/movies portray teens, I think it's one big fat combo of realistic/helpful/dangerous/misleading/healing :) It goes back to the perception argument--I can't say for sure what this portrayal is doing to everyone reading/seeing it, but I can say it might leave them with those exact options. I think teens (and adults, too) will take what they think is most relevant to them from what they read/see and choose how they feel about it.

    Here's to hoping they only take what'll make them learn more about themselves, and the world :)

  8. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments, everyone! I personally think YA books tend to cover controversial or troubling issues with a great deal more thoughtfulness and a great deal less sensationalism than television or movies. I would encourage my kids to read more "controversial" things before I'd encourage them to watch television/movies about the same issues (but that's a generalization, and it really varies from case to case).

    Laura--of course, the teen years are privileged in some ways. Teens do tend to take greater risks than children or older folks. And they have some critical things to attend to--like figuring out who the heck they are and how to become independent. That's really tough stuff. It's just that many of them manage it with an incredible amount of grace--and good relationships with others.

    Jennifer, Laura, and Em-Musing--yes, it DOES make for a riveting read. But the really good ones also stick with you and make you think!

    Aspiring_x--yes, it can't be forced, and difficult stuff certainly shouldn't be added in just for sensational purposes.

    Amparo--I completely agree--there is TONS of room for diversity of all types in YA, to match the diverse needs and nature of the audience.

    Justine--your strategy is completely justified. It IS a parent's job to look out for her kid. You know your daughter best, and you know her needs. As she gets older, she'll take more control, but for now, it's your job to filter her exposure, and to discuss stuff with her as it comes up. This is where I think parents can really get big bang for their buck from reading right along with their kids, and talking about what comes up. There's just so much individual variation, which is why I don't like to see blanket condemnation of certain books for content.

  9. Those numbers are fascinating! And I have to say, part of me is like, "20% is huge, that's bad" and the other part of me is relieved that 80% is a big, big majority.
    Great post, Sarah. I always learn something on your blog!

  10. Such a great post! I definitely think that books and TV shows should continue to reflect teen angst, but as long as they show other layers of teens, too. My friends and I weren't rebellious or anything, but just completely insecure. I would like to see more representation of how I was in high school. I didn't necessarily belong to a clique; I just went with the flow.

  11. Great post, Sarah.

    Honestly, I think operationalizing "significant conflict and emotional upset" is key. No doubt there's a bell curve of teenage suffering and some kids fall on the high end. But not being in the 20% does not in any way meant that a teen can't relate to the emotional struggles of others.

    To me, the great thing about ya literature is that it reflects the real experience of being a teen. It reminds us adults of a time when a relatively small conflict really was a big deal. Adolescence is a process of emotional, physical, and intellectual maturation, and those 3 things do not happen simultaneously. There's so much learning to do; learning how to deal with rejection, insecurity, failure, disappointment, conflict, success. Some people do it with grace, but most stumble somewhere along the way.

    Adolescence is also a time of searching for identity. This brings about a heightened awareness of self and others that fades as we foreclose on our identities and move into adulthood. I think the intrinsically self centered nature of this type of introspection is sometimes labeled pejoratively as "angst," by adults. But teens are not adults, and their emotional experience is very unique. Raw, painful, all runs so close to the surface.

    I love that YA literature celebrates and seeks to authentically honor this experience, for better for worse. And that's why, in my mind, regardless of the conflict, the best YA books are relatable because of how they represent the process of adolescence.

  12. Lydia--thanks!

    Steph and Pam--Yes, although most teens don't suffer clinical levels of symptoms, that doesn't mean it's an easy time. The point was made earlier that adolescence is a totally unique and fraught time of life, and it's for all the reasons you laid out. Nevertheless, the point that the best books accurately represent the PROCESS of adolescence (regardless of drama/trauma storyline) is very well taken.