6 signs of teen depression parents should look out for

Psychologists explain everything you need to know about the signs of teen depression. (Illustration: Getty Creative)
Psychologists explain everything you need to know about the signs of teen depression. (Illustration: Getty Creative)

Moodiness and teenagers go together like peanut butter and jelly, so it’s hardly shocking when your teen acts temperamental. Still, if they’re moody often, it’s understandable that you might start to wonder whether your teen is depressed.

While not every teenager experiences mood swings, it happens to enough teens during this phase of life to make many parents question what is and isn’t normal. Here’s what you need to know to understand the difference between “normal” behavior and potential signs of teen depression.

What’s normal when it comes to teen moodiness?

A lot of it has to do with your child’s baseline, Anthony L. Rostain, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Some are very moody before they hit adolescence and then, during adolescence, they become even moodier and get upset easier,” he says. “Others aren’t very moody at all.”

In general, normal teenage moodiness is short-lived and usually a reaction to something that happened, like rejection or an argument, says Rostain. Jed Magen, DO, chair of the department of psychiatry in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State University, agrees. “If your teenager has good friends you like, does well in school and generally doesn’t have a lot of other issues you worry about, some moodiness is likely the normal teenage behavior one can see,” he explains.

Teens also tend to flip-flop between moods, according to clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. “If your teen snaps at you one minute and then is sugar and spice the next, it’s probably typical teenage moodiness,” says Mayer.

While upsetting, it’s not uncommon for teens to say, “I wish I had never been born!” or “I hate myself!” when they’re angry, Mayer notes. Still, Magen believes it’s important to follow up with them when they’re calm to make sure they didn’t actually mean it.

What’s abnormal for teens and mood?

It’s not normal when sadness, irritability or anxiety are the main emotions your teen seems to be experiencing for weeks and it starts to interfere with school, family and their relationships with friends, Mary Fristad, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In other words, it’s a problem when it’s a problem.”

It’s also concerning if your teen picks up a knife when they’re angry or does something like open a window and threatens to jump out of it, says Rostain. “Behavior that threatens self-harm should be taken seriously.”

What are the signs of teen depression?

They’re very similar to the signs of depression in adults, Rostain says. They can include the following:

  • Sadness or irritability that lasts for weeks

  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy

  • Sleep, energy and appetite changes

  • Decreased concentration (which can show up as a drop in grades)

  • Isolating themselves from family and friends

  • Engaging in reckless behavior

What should you do if you suspect your teen is depressed?

Rostain recommends starting out by trying to talk to your child. “Say, ‘You seem like you’re sad or angry a lot. Can we talk about what’s going on?’” he says. “Be nonjudgmental and simply listen to see if your child is willing to share what’s bothering them.” At the same time, Fristad believes it’s important to let your child know that you’re there to help.

From there, Fristad says it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s primary care physician or pediatrician for a recommendation to a mental health professional. You can also talk to their school counselor for a recommendation, adds Mayer. And, if you’re concerned that your child is suicidal, Magen recommends taking them to the ER immediately. “I can’t emphasize enough that suicide in the majority of situations is preventable if you get to an emergency setting in an acute situation,” he says.

Overall, Rostain believes that it’s best to be “as open as possible” about next steps and to let your child know that you’ll figure this out together. “Your attitude needs to be that, if it’s depression, it’s very treatable,” he says. At the same time, do your own research about depression to learn more about the condition. Then, “be involved in the treatment in whatever way you can,” says Rostain.