Teenagers are supposed to be moody, right?

One moment they are happy and laughing about a silly YouTube video and the next they are slamming their door to their room and crying into their pillow. You tell yourself, “Its just hormones,” and try to brush it off. Chances are you are right. Most teenagers do fluctuate in mood to some extent and that is normal.

I have a friend who even nicknamed her teen the “Threen-ager” because her daughter resorted to teen meltdowns when she didn’t get her way.

But how do you know if your teen is just moody or if he or she is depressed or even anxious? Knowing the difference could save your teen’s life. Here are six questions to consider when assessing your teenager’s angst.

  1. Does your teen sleep too much? Most teenagers are known for staying up late and sleeping until noon especially on the weekends. Your teen’s sleep cycle does naturally shift to a later bedtime because they are releasing sleep hormones such as melatonin later in the evening (usually around 10pm) causing them to not get tired until much later in the evening. Most teens need anywhere from 8 to 10 hours of sleep to feel good and function well. If your teen is getting 12 or more hours of sleep on a regular basis this could indicate that something is off. It’s always important to rule out a medical condition that can cause lethargy, such as hypothyroidism, but if there are no medical conditions, too much sleep can be a symptom of depression. Some kids use sleep to be an escape from reality. When overly used, sleeping too much can become a bad habit of not facing what is troubling them. Talk to your teen about their sleep habits and find out if they are really tired or using sleep to avoid facing stressors. Being really tired all the time or using sleep to avoid stressors are both indicators that your teenager may need professional help. Also, being up all night and not being tired the next day is concerning. See your child’s pediatrician if this is the case.
  2. Have their eating habits changed? Did your teen’s healthy appetite suddenly go away? Are they not coming down for dinner anymore or skipping breakfast? Has your son or daughter’s weight suddenly changed in either gained or lost weight over a short period of time with no explanation? Large changes in your teen’s appetite and weight could be a symptom of depression. Again, it’s important to rule out a medical condition so a good place to start is with your pediatrician.
  3. Is your teen irritable? Most teens will be irritable from time to time, but if yours seems to be too irritable over minor things, take notice. Ask your teen why they are feeling angry and upset. If their feelings seem reasonable that’s one thing but if they can’t even explain why they are so angry all the time and wish they didn’t blow up over small things they may need to talk to someone to sort out the thoughts and feelings. Counseling can help teens have a safe place to share upsets and get stress and coping skills so that they feel more in control of their emotions.
  4. Is there evidence of drugs or alcohol use? Teenagers may try to experiment with smoking marijuana, vaping or try alcohol at a party. Research shows that experimentation can lead to habitual use and abuse of drugs or alcohol. Alcohol and drugs are a way for teens to self-medicate and numb out their feelings. It may be your child’s way of dealing with depression or anxiety. If you notice changes in your teen’s mood, personality or grades at school, then it’s important to rule out drug and alcohol use and seek professional help.
  5. Are they self-isolating? To some extent, teenagers do tend to spend more time alone in their rooms and enjoy their privacy. If, however they are choosing to spend time alone instead of hanging out with friends, or engaging in activities they once enjoyed, it’s time to get curious. Talk to your teen about why they don’t want to spend time with friends and family. Find out what is going on so that you can discern why your teen is spending time alone. Teens today can get sucked into their rooms because streaming movies on Netflix or playing Fortnite into the wee hours of the evening can entertain kids for hours. Parents need to make sure that their child is not living their entire life online by encouraging breaks from electronic devices so that they can develop face-to-face relationships and be more fully present in their lives. Parents too need to model taking breaks from their phone or computer to engage and be fully present with their children.
  6. Do you notice any risk-taking behaviors? Kids that are depressed have low self-esteem and are more likely to care less about themselves and wellbeing. Risk taking behaviors can be anything from acting promiscuous to not wearing their seatbelt or trying drugs or alcohol. As parents, we need to get actively involved at this point to prevent an irreversible mistake that can have a life-long impact.
  7. Do they have low self-esteem? Middle school and high school years are all about fitting in, being popular or being good at something. There is pressure to be smart, pretty, athletic, popular, etc. and this can sometimes can make your child feel less than they should. Kids that are bullied are more at risk for depression too. LGBTQ teens are at higher risk for depression and low self-esteem if they feel like they can’t fit in or have supportive friends, teachers or family members. Parents can play a large role in boosting self-esteem by offering authentic praise, giving a lot of support, laying off the pressure to be perfect in school with straight A’s or excelling in sports and just accepting them how they are. Letting your teen know you love them no matter what goes a long way in building self-esteem.
  8. Do they have suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors? Does your child ever say things like “I wish I was never born…” or “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up…?” It could just be venting, but as a parent you always want to take your child seriously and follow up by asking open-ended questions, like “What is going on in your life right now that you feel this way?” Your teen may never flat out say they want to die or commit suicide so you need to look for the warning signs. Do they have black or white thinking such as “If my girlfriend breaks up with me I can’t live anymore” or “If I don’t get a high score on my SAT my life is over…” If so, help them see the bigger picture that one relationship or test score or whatever it may be is not the end of the world. If you notice cutting or other self-harming behaviors or suicide ideation, it is imperative to seek professional help right away. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911 or go to local emergency room if you suspect your child is a danger to themselves.

Parenting a teenager is no easy task.

While you may think your adolescents need less help now because they are independent and almost fully-grown, quite the opposite is true. Parents need to be more hands-on and involved during the teen years. Make sure to talk to your children on a daily basis and get to know their stressors, ups and downs, aspirations, friends, hopes and dreams.

When your teens do make a mistake, and they will, remember that lecturing doesn’t work. Try instead to talk with your teens with more open-ended questions. Let them know you love them no matter what and that you are here to help them.

Let natural consequences be their biggest teachers. For example, if your teen didn’t study for an exam, let the low grade be the biggest lesson and motivator for your teen to try harder next time.

If your teenager has one or more of the above behaviors, take notice, ask questions, get involved and show support. Just knowing that a parent is concerned can help relieve some of the pressure and anxiety your teen is feeling. If you are worried and not sure how to help your child, seek help by calling a mental health professional or make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.