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Is My Teen Depressed or Just Moody?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

If you’re the parent of a teenager, chances are you’re riding a rollercoaster of emotion along with your child. It might have started when they were as young as eleven or twelve years old, or it might have started right on schedule at age thirteen. Either way, like it or not, there you are: strapped in the seat right next to them, understanding for the first time what your own parents and teachers went through when you were a teenager. You get to experience the mood swings, teen tantrums, daily identity crises, and romantic struggles. You have the honor of sharing both the social victories and the personal tragedies. You feel the academic pressures and cringe at the missteps. You witness the radical and sometimes scary physical and emotional transformations. You probably hear “I hate you!” followed by stomping feet and slamming doors—then fifteen minutes later field a request for a ride, money, or help with homework. Little of it is logical, less of it simple, and almost none of it is easy to handle.

Adolescence is Hard

In case you don’t remember, or somehow managed to sidestep the trickier parts of adolescence yourself, we can affirm that the teenage years are legitimately tough. Your child is going through big changes on all levels: physical, psychological, and emotional. Ups and downs are part of the bargain. Your child might change the way they look, dress, and act. They might make new friends and drop activities they used to love in favor of new pursuits that mystify you. They might be as moody and erratic as a toddler after too much birthday cake. While you can expect all these things to happen, there’s a downside to writing everything off to typical teenage behavior, because untreated depression can lead to severe consequences. We don’t want to be alarmist, but every parent should know that clinical depression is a serious mental health issue. For someone struggling with depression, the worst-case scenario is a suicide attempt, and the best-case scenario is extended bouts of sadness and internal misery. Neither are good, and neither are what any parent wants for their children of any age.

Teenage Depression: Statistics and Definition

Before we give you the latest statistics on teenage depression, it’s important to have a working knowledge of how mental health professionals define depression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) refers to depression as major depressive disorder and defines it as “…an overwhelming feeling of sadness, isolation, and despair that last two weeks or longer at a time.”

Symptoms of major depressive order include:

  • Persistent sad or empty mood
  • Frequent or daily crying
  • Frequent or daily feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Frequent or daily irritability, hostility, or anger
  • Persistent feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in or inability to enjoy favorite hobbies, sports, and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Social isolation and impaired communication
  • Persistent boredom and low energy
  • Extreme restlessness and agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Major changes in sleeping patterns – insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Major changes in eating patterns – extreme loss or gain of weight
  • Thinking about, talking about, or attempting suicide
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches without a clear physical cause, which don’t respond to typical treatment

Now, the statistics (check the source data here and here):

  • Depression is the leading mental health disorder in adolescents in the U.S.
  • In 2015, 12.5% of adolescents (~3 million) in the U.S. had a major depressive episode, up from 8.7 % in 2005 and 11.3 % in 2014.
  • In 2015, 19.5 % of adolescent females (~2.4 million) had a major depressive episode, up from 13.1% in 2005 and 17.3 % in 2014.
  • As many as 15% of adolescents (~4 million) suffer from at least some symptoms of depression at any given time

Depressed or Moody: What is It?

So far, we’ve given you a clinical definition of depression, discussed the major symptoms, and offered some startling statistics. But we still haven’t told you how to tell if your child is depressed or just moody. You want to know if this new human—this teenage version of the child you used to know—living in your house is simply going through a phase where they dress like they’re in an 80s goth band and say things to intentionally freak you out, or if they have a serious mental health issue that needs to be addressed by a professional. Here’s the key: when you read through the symptoms and think about them in light of your teenager, the operative concepts are duration and persistence.

Most teenagers will display a majority of the symptoms of depression at some point between the ages of twelve and eighteen. That’s life. That’s the rollercoaster. Those are the joys of parenting a teen. However, in a typical teenager, the symptoms don’t happen every day and they don’t last a long time. The DSM-V indicates that major depressive order can be clinically diagnosed if an individual displays any five of the symptoms every day for two weeks or more.

A fifteen-year-old who cries all afternoon Monday and Tuesday as a result of social or romantic disappointment but makes it to soccer practice on Wednesday, gives a full effort at the game on Friday, then smiles, participates, and has fun at the post-game pizza party is probably not depressed. If that same fifteen-year-old does not turn it around on Wednesday, but instead becomes sad, irritable, stops eating, and has trouble sleeping, and these symptoms persist for a month, then that child may well be clinically depressed. A sixteen-year-old girl who dies her hair pink and gives you attitude when you ask her to clean up her room is likely just being a moody teenager. When that same young woman isolates herself in her room every day for three weeks, completely stops engaging with her friends and siblings, and stops doing everything she used to enjoy—that child may well be clinically depressed.

What You Can Do

If you’ve read and understood the symptoms and criteria we’ve discussed and think your teenager may be struggling with depression, the first thing to know is that depression can be treated successfully—and the earlier the treatment begins, the better. The second thing to know is that you need to take action: make an appointment to have your teen assessed by a mental health professional as soon as possible. You know your child, but it’s best to get expert help. Most treatment includes talk therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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