How To Tell If Your Teen Is Depressed — Or If It’s Just Normal Moodiness

New guidelines encourage routine screening
Does Your Teen Have Growing Pains — Or Is It Depression?

If you have a teenager in your household, moodiness often comes hand-in-hand. So when your child is quiet, seems sad, or retreats to his or her room and won’t talk to you, it’s sometimes hard to know if it’s just part of growing up or a sign of depression that needs attention.

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Not sure? There’s someone else who can help you decipher your teen’s moods: your pediatrician. He or she can decipher the signs of depression in your child and sort out treatment if it’s needed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long encouraged pediatricians to conduct depression screening for children ages 12 and up. Recent guideline updates from the AAP have strengthened this recommendation for assessment and treatment.

That means you can expect your pediatrician to ask your child about depression as part of routine exams.

Why is screening for teen depression so important?

“We know that depression in teenagers is on the rise,” says pediatrician Veronica Issac, MD. Estimates say that as many as 1 in 5 teenagers will experience depression at some point during adolescence.

But the condition often goes undiagnosed — partly because parents may have trouble distinguishing normal teenage moodiness from a more serious problem.

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Routine screening for depression helps pediatricians identify adolescents who are struggling and may need treatment, Dr. Issac says.

What happens during screening?

Your pediatrician may use a number of strategies. These may include:

  • Questionnaires to gather more information. Two common tools are the PHQ-9 and the Pediatric Symptom Checklist. Both contain questions about low mood, problems with sleep and appetite, and behavioral changes.
  • Private talk with your teen. Your pediatrician may ask to speak to your child without you in the room, but he or she will fill you in if there are serious concerns. “Sometimes teens have trouble telling their parents they’re depressed because they’re not sure what kind of reaction they’re going to get,” Dr. Issac says.

How is teen depression treated?

Besides screening for depression, the AAP guidelines encourage pediatricians to have processes for helping their patients get treatment.

Some practices even have their own mental health professionals on staff. Your pediatrician can suggest a treatment plan for your adolescent that may involve medication, therapy or both.

When it comes to antidepressants, Dr. Issac says she only suggests them in certain cases.

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“It depends on the severity of the symptoms and how much it’s impacting your child’s daily functioning,” she says. “There are definitely teens who would benefit just from seeing a therapist. Those who are more severely impacted may need medication.”

She adds that depression is caused by imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, which is why medications may be helpful in certain cases.

What if suicide is a concern?

If your teen is severely depressed and has had thoughts about suicide, your pediatrician can help you create a safety plan. This will outline steps for you and your child to take if symptoms worsen.

Your doctor will also advise you on crisis resources you can use if there is a mental health emergency.

Mental health is an important part of your adolescent’s overall well-being. Having routine screenings for depression can help keep the lines of communication open and ensure that your child is healthy and supported.

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