Moodiness is the norm for teenagers… right?

Life as a teen can be difficult. They’re trying to juggle schoolwork and family drama, navigate changes in friendships and relationships, ‘act natural’ while hormones fluctuate, and assert their independence while discovering who they are.

Sometimes, it can feel like it’s too much to handle.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIMH), an estimated 3.2 million adolescents in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode.

Yet all of life’s ups and downs can make anyone moody.

The best way to tell the difference between teen mood shifts and depression is to take stock of what you’re noticing. If the symptoms below continue for 2 or more weeks without letting up, then it’s a sign your teen may need support.

Anyone can experience depression — regardless of age or gender — but symptoms typically begin during the teen years to early adulthood.

But the symptoms of teenage depression can be slightly different than those in adults.

Your teen might not have every symptom below, but they’ll usually have several of them:

  • frequent sadness, tearfulness, or crying
  • feeling hopeless, or like everything in life is going wrong
  • less interest or pleasure in their usual activities
  • lack of motivation
  • low energy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • lower performance in school
  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • low self-esteem or feelings of guilt
  • feeling more irritable, angry, or hostile
  • difficulty with relationships or communication
  • self-harm
  • suicidal thoughts or actions

Signs of suicide risk

There are some things we should all know: How to perform CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, basic first aid. How to identify suicide risk needs to be one of those things, too.

Signs include:

  • withdrawing from loved ones and self-isolating
  • wavering between not wanting to live and feeling undecided about wanting to die
  • talking or writing about death or suicide
  • putting personal affairs in order, such as giving away possessions
  • previous suicide attempts

Here’s some more tips for spotting suicidal behaviors in adolescents.

Q: Is my kid tired all the time due to extracurriculars, or for seemingly no reason?

A: If your teen has very little downtime because they’re always busy with extracurriculars and homework, this could be the cause of their exhaustion. It’s also a great indication of an over-scheduled teen and not a depressed one.

Or, they could be like 7 out of 10 high schoolers who need more sleep than they get.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, teens ages 13 to 18 should sleep 8–10 hours a day. Yet their body’s internal clock typically causes them to stay up late, something that’s at odds with the early start times of their school days.

If your child is getting enough sleep but still seems tired all the time or just doesn’t want to get out of bed, this could be a sign of depression.

Depression can cause sleep problems and have your teen feeling low energy, hopelessness, and less motivated to do things, so they choose to stay in bed.

Q: Has my teen’s appetite dropped off?

A: If your teen isn’t eating as much as they used to and they’re losing weight, it could be a symptom of several issues.

Extreme stress can cause a change in your teen’s eating habits. So can eating disorders and substance use disorder.

Certain medical conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or food allergies, could also be the cause, along with taking certain medications.

While it’s true depression can cause appetite changes, your teen’s doctor will likely rule out other potential causes before drawing a conclusion.

Q: Is my teenager self-isolating from family and friends?

A: As your child gets older, they’ll want more privacy — which often means hours and hours alone in their room. But depression looks different.

It often makes teens feel like no one understands them or what they’re experiencing, so they have nothing to talk about with others.

In their own words

Researchers in a 2004 study listened and asked candid questions of 7 teens who had managed depressive episodes with antidepressants. Here’s how they described depression, apart from typical sadness:

From being unhappy with myself and with other people. …When I’m sad, I’m sad about certain things, but when I’m depressed I’m upset about myself.

I grew up too quickly and missed that whole childhood thing and I want to go back.

The cloud always seemed to be over, there never seemed to be a sunny day. It could be 102 degrees out, but to me it was the rainiest Washington day you ever had.

I felt pretty much helpless, lost at times, sad. I just want to shut off the world. I try to be alone.

Pay attention if your kid is avoiding family gatherings because they’re with friends, or if they’re also turning down invites to hang out with them, too.

If they’re spending all their time in their room and are no longer interested in talking to you or their friends, it could be a sign of depression.

Q: Has my teen lost interest in their go-to pastimes?

A: If they’ve replaced their usual activities with new ones, then it’s likely a sign that their interests are simply changing.

But with depression, teens often don’t get excited about things they once loved or pick up new interests. They may tell you they don’t feel like it or enjoy it anymore, or that they’re too tired to do a once-favorite hobby.

Q: Are there any signs my teenager is harming themselves or thinking about suicide?

A: It can be very shocking to notice cuts or burns on your teen, but self-injury is not the same as a suicide attempt.

If your teen is harming themselves in any way, it’s typically an effort to make themselves feel better or gain control. This doesn’t necessarily lead to a suicide attempt, but is a red flag all the same.

Engaging in self-harm may look different from person to person, but signs typically include:

  • doing it often, meaning you may see multiple scars in the same region
  • harming themselves in a way that only damages their skin

If your teen has started writing poems, songs, or stories about suicide, they could be having suicidal thoughts and are preoccupied with the idea of death or dying.

Thinking about suicide doesn’t always mean that someone has a plan or will actually make an attempt, but it’s important to take it seriously anyway.

If you find out your teen is telling people in person or on social media that they want to die, that everyone would be better off without them, or similar comments, this is a definite red flag.

Suicidal thoughts come and go, but if you come across anything that concerns you, speak with your teen and reach out to a professional for support.

Teens are often juggling a lot — trying to balance changes, growing up, and expectations placed on them by themselves and society. It’s no wonder their moods may change or jump around.

You can help them get through these ups and downs (and side-to-sides), but it can take some time, understanding, and patience.

Talk about it

Before you react to your child’s negative mood, take a minute to assess the situation.

Did something upsetting happen during their day or week? Before you yell at them for their bad attitude, ask them what’s upsetting them.

Meaningful way to offer support

“What’s on your mind?”

“Are you getting all the support [from me, at school, with friends] that you need?”

“Hey, I’m open to listening, no judgement.”

“I want you to know that I’m here for you and I’ve got your back.”

You can also read more on what to do (and not do) when someone tells you about mental health challenges.

Sometimes, lending an ear is all that’s needed. Other times, they might actually want your help or advice.

Feel like you could use a primer in being a better listener? You can bookmark our rundown on active listening tips.

Teach them coping skills

Learning how to manage stress is an important skill. While a few teens can figure this out on their own, most need some help.

In addition to modeling how to cope, teach your kid how to plan ahead for possible disappointments and how to break down stressful, complicated problems into manageable steps.

You can also show and teach them various ways to manage their emotions in the moment and during the course of their day or week.

If you recognize any depression symptoms in your teen, the first step is to reach out to your child’s doctor for an evaluation. You can then ask them for referrals, or find a therapist for your teen on your own.

At the same time, speak with your teen about your concerns. You can start by simply asking them if anything is bothering them — in their body or mind.

Don’t be judgmental or attempt to solve all their problems. Instead, just listen and let them know you’re there for them. This might help them be more willing to talk now and in the future.

If you think they need therapy, but they don’t want to go, explain how it could be helpful for them, but don’t push it. (Hint: they can get intel on managing their emotions and coping with stress from therapy).

Keep the door open for them, and when they’re ready to get help, make an appointment with a mental health professional for an evaluation and treatment.

If your teenager seems to be experiencing depression, speak with them about what they’re feeling. Try to both actively listen and observe what they’re experiencing.

It can also help to reach out to a mental health professional.

Add to contacts

It never hurts to be prepared. Jot down this number for both you and your teen, just in case it’s ever needed.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255. You can also reach out through their online chat.

If you’re unsure if your teen is moody or experiencing symptoms of depression, you can always contact their primary doctor. Your teen doesn’t have to be clinically depressed to get support or benefit from talking to a professional.

Whether it’s normal mood shifts or depression, you can help them by listening to their worries and teaching them coping skills.