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Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression?

By Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Your teen prefers to sleep till 11:00am, is crabby when she wakes up, would rather talk to the dog than you, and isolates herself for hours at a time in her room, glued to her laptop. Is she depressed? Or just being a normal teenager?

It’s perfectly normal for teens to be moody, irritable, overly sensitive and withdrawn. After all, this is a developmental period where both their mind and body are growing rapidly. But, as a parent witnessing your teenager’s mood rapidly change throughout the week, day, or hour, it’s common to worry that they may be affected by depression.

Below are some clues that can help parents differentiate whether your teenager’s mood and behaviors are “normal,” or if your teen is in need of attention from a professional.

The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.

Normal Teenage Moods and Behaviors

Popular perception is that the teen years are fraught with continual angst and unhappiness—and this can certainly be true for many teenagers. But, teens who are not clinically depressed are able to rise above moments of feeling fragile, blue, or helpless. They are able to bounce back after a day or so, calling on strengths such as their support network (one or two close friends, family, etc.), an interest in outside activities, an ability to function well at school, or an overall positive sense of self.

What Does Teenage Depression Look Like?

Depression in the teen years generally starts to show up around age 13 and then peaks between the ages of 16 into the early 20s. Identifying depression in young people can be difficult because there is a wide array of symptoms, which can be different from what we see in adults. The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.

  • Sleeping habits. All of my teens would sleep until noon on the weekends if allowed, mainly because their school week is filled to the brim with homework, sports, and school activities. But if you notice that your child would rather hole up in bed for the day on the weekends, has irregular sleep patterns you haven’t noticed before, or is taking an unusual number of naps, this could signal depression.
  • Using substances to self-medicate. Some teens find that using drugs or alcohol helps to temporarily ease symptoms of depression, and the high they experience can become a strong reinforcement to continue using. Certainly not all teens who use alcohol or drugs are depressed; but if you know your child is using any substances, check in to determine why. Alcohol and drug use has the potential to increase depression in both adults and teenagers alike.
  • Acting-out behaviors. There is a fine line between normal teenage acting out (back talk, challenging or breaking the rules, and being defiant) and the possibility that such behaviors are being caused by depression. Because the teenage brain isn’t yet fully developed, some kids find that when they act out, they get a temporary release from the anxious and depressed feelings that accompany a depressive mood disorder.

    One thing to keep in mind is not only how often your teen acts out, but how he or she responds when you consistently apply consequences. For example, if your daughter has an emotional outburst with tears, yelling and name calling, but is able to regain her composure after you’ve responded calmly and are able to discuss what is bothering her, she’s most likely exhibiting normal teenage angst (even if she explodes again the following week). However, if she acts out in a threatening manner, cannot calm herself, or you find she continues to act in a hopeless, reckless manner, then she may need to be screened for depression.

  • Physical symptoms. Some teenage depression manifests through physical symptoms such as recurrent stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain, or gastrointestinal distress. If your teen has ongoing medical problems with no apparent physical explanation, seeking professional help to rule out depression may be useful.
  • Social withdrawal. All teens isolate themselves occasionally, and most want time away from parents and siblings, but social withdrawal looks different. For instance, if your son was in the habit of meeting friends at the skateboard park twice a week but now holes up in his room, this is something worth exploring with him. If his change of heart is due to a desire to change peer groups, or because this group of boys is engaging in risky behavior, then he’s making a good choice. But if he’s withdrawing for no apparent reason, this could be a sign of depression.

Annoying Behavior Isn’t Necessarily Depression

As parents of three teenagers, my husband and I find our house is filled with annoying behavior, pretty much on a daily basis. This includes yelling (more them, less us); irritability (sometimes all of us!); mean and even spiteful behavior directed at siblings; anger towards parents; a sense of hopelessness around a sporting event or a school project; and mood swings that can change from zero to sixty, depending on whether someone is getting what they want in the moment.

It’s easy, as a parent, to feel chronically overwhelmed by this rapid shifting of moods; and it’s even easier to wonder if there’s something more serious going on (after all, it all seems so irrational!). If one child tends to stir the pot more than the others, that may cause you to feel even more concerned. Keep in mind, though, that as long as your child is able to “bounce back” most days of the week, then their annoying behaviors don’t signify that they have a depressive disorder.

Whether your child is struggling with clinical depression or experiencing a rough patch in their development, as parents we need to be on alert to support our teen and determine what sort of help is needed. There are options available to help if depression strikes. Calling the pediatrician to see if they have recommendations for mental health workers that specialize in teenage depression is a good place to start.

The important thing to remember about adolescent depression is that this isn’t necessarily a lifelong diagnosis. If your teen is able to get treatment early, the likelihood is high that they will successfully get through this difficult stage in their development.

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About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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