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The Difference Between Teen Moodiness and Depression

Understanding the difference between normal mood swings and depression is an important part of parenting.

As a parent, it can be challenging to understand the differences between normal teen moodiness and depression. Unfortunately, in a post-Covid world, depression, and anxiety are rising among young people. Teen minds have always craved stimulation, and their emotional reactions are urgent and sometimes debilitating. One of our missions as caring adults is to develop resilient children.

It’s important to determine if your teen is experiencing normal adolescent moodiness and irritability or if it is something more serious like depression. So let’s review why today’s teens seem more vulnerable and learn practical ways to help them build resilience.

Possible Causes of Adolescent Depression

Many things can contribute to adolescent depression. For example, teens can develop feelings of failure and worthlessness over grades or fraught relationships with peers. Many teens experience depression as their bodies morph from being boys and girls into young men and women.

During this time, risk factors include disruptive family events such as conflict, addictions, divorce, or the death of a family member.

Several health issues can contribute to depression, including chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a family history of mental health issues. In addition, teens who have been diagnosed with a learning disability or ADHD are at higher risk.

One of the most significant factors for the rise in teen anxiety and depression is related to technology.

How Technology Impacts Us

Those born between 1995 and 2012 were the first children to grow up with smartphones.

In the early years, many experts warned us of the potential dangers of smartphones and their impact on young minds.

Getting your first smartphone has become a rite of passage in today’s world. Sales data indicates parents are purchasing them for their children at earlier and earlier ages. We know digital devices are so engaging, and their use can quickly push out physical activities and face-to-face socializing. While some warn against too much “screen time,” recent studies suggest that time spent on social media is the culprit.

Social media is more associated with harm, particularly for those vulnerable to depression and anxiety. One of the hidden dangers of children having a smartphone is exposing them to a profound experience of their feelings before they have the skill set to process them.

Many teens are giving the deepest part of themselves—feelings, emotions, passions, desires, and dreams to thousands of strangers online.

These behaviors can make them confused and tired, with little to invest in genuine relationships. The emotional consequences can leave your teen feeling overwhelmed. With the rise of connectivity, even rural kids are exposed to a national thicket of social media drama.

For more on the effects of social media in childhood, read Kate Julian’s 2020 story in The Atlantic titled “What Happened to American Childhood?” which details this disturbing trend.

Being a teen today can be an overwhelming full-time occupation.

Normal Teen Moodiness and Teen Depression

There are three areas to consider when trying to determine if your teen is going through age-appropriate moods or something more serious.

1. Time Span

One of the indicators to look out for has to do with duration. For example, has your teen been moodier or behaving differently for more than a couple of weeks? If so, there is a possibility he or she could be dealing with a form of depression.

2. Symptoms

You know your child better than anyone else. But the kaleidoscope of symptoms for teen depression can range from withdrawal, sadness, increased moodiness, sulkiness, crying, irritability, and anger. Some of these can include mood swings that are out of sync with normal life circumstances. For a complete list of symptoms, see the Mayo Clinic’s article on Teen Depression (Aug 2022).

3. Areas of Life

Take note if you see issues spanning multiple domains or areas of your teen’s life, such as their performance at school, sports, and youth activities. Also, if you see a shift in their interactions with friends or notice increased isolation and withdrawal, it could be more than adolescent moodiness.

Still Not Sure if it’s Teen Moodiness or Something Else?

Adolescence is a challenging time. Because of everything happening with your teen’s body and mind, it can be challenging to figure out. Watch to see if they are experiencing normal moods or something more profound, like clinical depression.

Be intentional about staying aware of changes you observe in your teen. Whether or not your teen may be facing the daunting challenges of puberty or the pain of depression, moms and dads need to know about the mental health issues teens face.

Here are five areas to consider.

1. Eating Habits –This includes weight changes. If you notice a difference in your teen’s eating habits, it can indicate underlying mental health issues.

2. Interest –Another indicator of trouble are signs of changes in your child’s activities and interests. While not always a sign of mental health concerns, it is something to note. Staying up to date with your child’s current interests is a great way to remain in touch and continue building your relationship.

3. Sleeping Habits–Teens tend to sleep a lot. Still, if you observe a noticeable shift in their sleeping patterns, you should speak to them about it.

4. Substance Use–Adolescence is a time of experimentation with both legal and illegal substances. Many times teens will “experiment” to self-medicate. Therefore, any substance or alcohol use should be considered a red flag.

5. Suicidal Ideation or Non-suicidal Self-harm–If your teen is expressing suicidal thoughts or you observe any self-harm, your teen is likely dealing with depression.

When to Seek Help

If you are concerned about their safety, suicidal thoughts, or non-suicidal self-harm, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional who works with adolescents. You could also check with your church for recommendations for a licensed counselor. Be prepared to try more than one counselor or practice to find someone with whom your teen can connect and feel comfortable sharing.

If you feel they are in an emergency, call your local 911, and they will send someone to evaluate to determine the next steps.

Next Steps

What are some actionable steps you can take as a parent? What can you do to help your child be more resilient?

Observe your teen. If you see something that doesn’t look or feel right, address it.

Engage your teen. Talk, and let them know you will listen without preaching or freaking out. Don’t be afraid to ask if they are feeling depressed. Just because your child may deny they are depressed does not mean you should fail to keep an eye on them.

Educate yourself on what to look for if your child is dealing with excess anxiety or depression.

Encourage him or her to engage in healthy activities. Whether or not your teen is struggling with depression, it is essential to get out into the sunshine and move around. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to technology is that both adults and kids spend too much time on social media and not enough time in physical activity.

Remember, you are not your teen’s friend. You are a parent. You are there to love them, lead them, guide them, and pray for them.

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