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Ask the Experts: When a Teen's Mood is Something More Serious

How to tell common teen moodiness from depression

Published on: March 31, 2015

Q: How do you tell regular teen moodiness from depression?

A: Depression is a term many teens use to describe their level of sadness. It is also used to describe a treatable clinical condition that 10–20 percent of adolescents experience at some point. These two different experiences are both real. How can parents know when their teen needs help? Staying connected to your teen, communicating and checking in with them can help answer this question.  

moody teen girl

While a teen’s years can and should be a time of strong feelings, passions and challenging authority, it’s also when they can develop mental health challenges. Normal adolescent development often includes moodiness that doesn’t disrupt families. A teen can be moody without having difficulty meeting responsibilities. When a teen’s actions disrupt family function and family members worry about what mood will emerge from the teen at any given time, consider having a trained health professional screen for depression or concerns like substance abuse, trauma and bullying. 

Depression looks different in teens than in adults. Teens may not look sad, but they may be very irritable, argumentative, contrary and prone to fighting.

When [a teen’s] moodiness, sadness, irritability or self-imposed isolation lasts longer than two weeks, think about having the teen evaluated. If a teen ever expresses the desire to die or speaks of ending their life, the teen must be given immediate access to mental health care (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273- TALK [8255]). Sometimes parents think, They didn’t really mean it. Even if this is true, often [this indicates that] a teen’s coping skills are no longer adequate. Statements like this show a hopeless, desperate teen who believes there is no relief for their pain. Swift assistance with adolescent-focused mental health professionals is critical. 

Very simply, if a teen asks for help, they need it. Take it seriously. Without help, teens are more likely to have difficulty successfully transitioning into a productive and mature adult. They are more likely to have depression during adulthood that becomes a lifelong struggle. 

The good news is treatment works and can be transformative for a teen. Parents who reach out for assistance for teens experiencing difficulties ensure their teens have the support they need as they grow into adulthood.

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