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Is it typical teenage moodiness or depression? Here’s how to tell.

Teen on her phone
Blog Health Information

/ by UK HealthCare

Written by Dr. Alissa Briggs, a psychologist at UK Adolescent Medicine.

Adolescence is an emotionally tumultuous time filled with changes that can affect young adults’ behavior and mental health.

In fact, at least 20 percent of adolescents will have a mental illness, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among this age group.

Unfortunately, as a parent or caregiver, it can be difficult to know how to help your child during this time. Are your adolescent’s mood changes and behavior that of a typical teenager or do they represent a more serious concern such as depression?

I’m here to help answer those questions and provide some thoughts on what you can do to help.

Why is mental health a concern during adolescence?

As children go through adolescence, their amygdala – an area of the brain involved in immediate, emotionally based reactions – develops before their prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that supports behavioral inhibition and reasoned decision-making.

What does that all mean? That adolescents can often be moody, over-reactive or display other behaviors that are different from what you’re used to.

Many parents who come to our clinic wonder if their child’s mood swings are normal or if there is an underlying mood disorder. While some parents are surprised to learn that their child has symptoms of depression, many others are relieved to find that their child’s behavior is relatively typical.

What’s normal and what’s not?

Normal behavior: Shifts in mood that seem out of proportion to the triggering incident (from an adult perspective).
Concern for depression: A persistent negative mood or persistent irritability.

Normal behavior: Strong reactions to seemingly minor incidents.
Concern for depression: Explosive behavior that is verbally or physically aggressive.

Normal behavior: Decreased interest in socializing with family.
Concern for depression: Decreased interest in socializing with peers.

Normal behavior: Sleeping late on weekends and being tired on school mornings. 
Concern for depression: Sleeping all the time and/or refusing to get out of bed.

Normal behavior: Lower-than-normal grades when transitioning to middle or high school or a lower-than-normal grade in one class.
Concern for depression: A sudden decline in grades.

Normal behavior: Changes in taste for certain foods.
Concern for depression: Changes in eating patterns.

Normal behavior: Changes in preferred activities.
Concern for depression: Decreased interest in activities that were previously enjoyed without an increased interest in other activities (decreased activity overall).

Other serious concerns for depression: Self-injury or statements that he or she would be better off not here or dead.

If your child has symptoms of depression, remember that it is not your fault. It is critical that you follow up with your pediatrician and a mental health professional, because the best medicine is prevention and early intervention. 

Ways to help your teen

Whether your child has depression or is going through the ups and downs of adolescence, there are ways you can support their mental health:

Actively listen: When your child is interested in talking with you, stop what you are doing and give your full attention to your child. Turn toward your child and give them eye contact. Summarize what you think you hear them saying, so they hear that you are listening.

Adolescents don’t always pick the most opportune times to want to talk, but their inclination to reach out to parents about something important can be rare and fleeting. Being dismissed may make them less likely to reach out in the future.

Pick your battles: There will be plenty of opportunities for conflict with an adolescent. Develop and clearly communicate a few broad expectations, and let the rest slide.

Frequent conflict can build a negative relationship and make it less likely for an adolescent to seek parental support. In addition, if you are willing to be flexible about little things, your teen may be more likely to listen to your thoughts when it comes to the big things.

Connect: Make sure that the majority of your conversations are about daily life and that your experiences together are generally positive. Here is a great list of questions you can ask your child after school to spark a conversation about their life. Pick something that you and your teen enjoy doing, and do it together regularly, no matter what.

Supervise: Adolescents do better when their parents are aware of where they are and what they are doing. This does not mean that you have to keep your child at home, but it does mean that you need to set limits and expect that they check in with you when they are out.

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