The typical teen is described as moody, tired, irritable, withdrawn and angry. Research shows 11% of teens have a diagnosable depressive disorder and only one in five gets help. So, how can parents tell when their teen is experiencing normal moodiness and when it has become depression and needs treatment?
Teenagers become irritable as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents
As this happens, teenagers want distance and privacy and become defensive when asked what they are doing. While uncomfortable for parents, normal teens use defensiveness to attain and maintain a sense of separateness. Although these teens protest spending time with parents and family, they still enjoy time with friends and engaging in healthy activities outside of the home. Teens who are angry, sad and chronically disengaged from both family and friends may be struggling.
Teens tend to be highly dramatic
Seemingly small events, like poor test grades, may result in an overly-distraught teenager. Still developing skills to manage emotions, teens are easily overwhelmed producing dramatic expressions. If a teen’s reactions are related to specific events and only last a few days, this is probably normal. If the emotions continue or the teen appears chronically sad or anxious, it may signal something more serious than typical teenage angst.
When evaluating to see if there is a problem, looking at three aspects of the teen’s experience can be helpful:
1. Level of daily life disruption from the teen’s thoughts and feelings
- Mild: Thoughts and feelings that drift through the teen’s life and “come and go” without interfering in their day-to-day functioning are normal
- Moderate: Emotions that interfere with healthy functioning in several areas such as school, home and social interactions may signal a problem
- Serious: Disruptive thoughts and feelings making it difficult to get out of bed or engage in daily activities and/or the desire to self-harm or take their own life signal a need for immediate attention
2. Length of time
Negative or isolating behaviors or moods occurring most of the time for two weeks or longer may be outside of the normal range and should be evaluated professionally.
3. Areas of life affected
It is normal to have a bad mood related to a specific event and/or that affects only a small part of a teen’s life. However, if a teen is having difficulty functioning in multiple parts of life (i.e. school, work and friends), the situation may be more serious and should be evaluated.
When teens experience anxiety and depression, it can look different than sadness or tears. Instead, you may see signs and symptoms such as:
- Irritability and anger which can appear defiant
- Difficulty bouncing back from stressful situations
- Routinely isolating from friends and family
- Eating more or less than usual
- Complaining about difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Complaining of chronic tiredness and attempting to sleep as much as possible
- Complaining of headaches, stomachaches or general aches and pains
- Showing little interest in previously pleasurable activities
- Dropping out of activities without picking up new interests to replace them
- Showing difficulty concentrating, remembering things or paying attention
- Taking little interest in physical appearance
How to Talk to Your Teen
Symptoms have many causes and don’t necessarily mean something is seriously wrong. However, if your teen begins to exhibit several of these symptoms, make time to talk to him or her about what’s happening. When talking with a teen, it is important to:
- Speak calmly and be prepared to listen
- Do not assume your answer is the only answer or even the correct answer
- Try not to use words like “always” or “never”
- Avoid sarcasm, threats and yelling
- Don’t make personal attacks
- Work with the teen to generate multiple possible solutions without demanding specific outcomes
- Remind the teen that you are in their corner and they are not in this alone
Both teens and parents find the teenage years difficult. The multitude of changes that occur during this developmental stage in life make it difficult to identify when there is a problem, so listen to your instincts as a parent, ask questions and take action if you are concerned.
Early intervention is important as approximately 80% of teenagers who receive treatment for a mood disorder do respond to this treatment. If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to your family doctor, a school counselor or the mental health professionals within your community.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.