Is Your Teen Moody — or Depressed? 7 Tips for Parents
It can be hard to distinguish teenage moodiness from depression. Discover the difference, learn why early intervention is important, and take positive steps to help your teen.
Your teen is being really irritable. Is it a random bad mood — or something more?
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Most teens bounce back quickly from a few days of moodiness. But those who feel sad, hopeless or irritable for weeks, months or longer are likely to be depressed.
“Teens with depression are at higher risk for school problems, peer and family conflict, substance abuse, self-injury and suicide,” says psychiatrist Joseph Austerman, DO. “But evidence shows that early detection and treatment of depression can help prevent or minimize its debilitating effects.”
Depressed teens — and their parents — often feel like they’re the only ones dealing with this problem. Yet in 2014, 2.8 million U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 17 suffered major depression, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. And that number is probably low.
Of greater concern: On average, one in five high school students seriously considers suicide.
The NIMH considers depression a treatable brain illness. “An ever-growing body of literature supports the neurobiology of depression,” says Dr. Austerman. “Genetic factors and social experiences can alter the brain’s neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity and neural networks, and disrupt hormone regulation.”
The causes of depression vary. Big life transitions (such as moving or parental divorce) can affect teens’ thoughts and moods. Stress, rapidly changing hormones and lack of sleep just compound the problem.
“Depression often causes a change in demeanor. Teens may withdraw socially, and become increasingly irritable or sad. Academic performance may worsen,” says Dr. Austerman.
Parents may notice changes in a teen’s sleep, appetite or concentration. Self-esteem and self-confidence may take a nose dive. In severe cases, teens may think about suicide.
Eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse can co-exist with depression. In extreme cases, teens can suffer a break with reality, involving hallucinations and delusions or physical slowness.
“The most important thing you can do is recognize a change in your teen,” says Dr. Austerman. “It never hurts to seek an evaluation from a professional when something just does not feel right.”
Your child’s doctor can rule out any health problems that can trigger depression and, if needed, refer your teen to a psychologist, therapist or counselor. Talk therapy — and, when needed, medication — are highly effective for teens. Even hopelessly depressed teens get better once they:
If antidepressants are needed, a few types have proven both safe and effective for teens.
Meanwhile, parents can take these steps to help a depressed teen:
One of the best things parents can do in times of turmoil? Model healthy behaviors and self-care for your teen. “Even though teens don’t show it, they learn much more by your actions than by your advice,” says Dr. Austerman.
If you’re concerned a teen is suicidal, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24/7 for immediate help.