Why Is My Teenager so Sad All the Time? Do They Have Depression?

Your teen, it seems, is always moping about something or another. Every time you look at them, their body language cries miserable. When they’re not crying, they’re either sulking or moody. They rarely smile, answer you in monosyllables, and seem to spend all their time in their room. A grey cloud seems to hang perpetually over their heads.

You keep wondering: Is it normal that my teen is always so sad? 

Or does my teen have depression?

Teens Have a Lot of Stress in Their Lives

First, let’s reassure you that it’s normal for a teen to have days when they’re feeling down. An adolescent’s life is stressful—perhaps even more than a parent’s.

First, there’s lots of pressure from school—not only homework, tests, and papers, but also extracurricular activities like sports or student government. If your teen is like many others, they constantly have the pressure of college looming in the back of their minds, too. Then there’s the issue of friends. The social life of a teen is complicated, and there’s lots of emotional tension and drama when it comes to friendships and romantic relationships. Along with that comes peer pressure to engage in risky behavior like drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. And social media makes it all so much harder. (Why does it seem like everyone else has it together besides for me?)

Teens’ Stress Levels Are Comparable to Adults

Still don’t believe all this is something to stress about?  The APA conducted a study called Stress in America to compare the stress levels of adults vs. teens. They found that on average, teens actually seem to have more stress than adults! On a 1-10 scale of average stress throughout the school year (where 1 is little to no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress), teens self-reported an average of 5.8 while adults reported a level of 5.1.

So your teen’s everyday stresses are real. They loom large. And they can occasionally cause your teen to break down crying. Or lock themselves in their room, shut everyone else out, and blast music.

And when this happens occasionally, it’s normal.

Some Measure of Teen Moodiness Is Normal

In addition to all the everyday stresses your teen is facing, keep in mind that he or she is also experiencing lots of internal angst that’s natural to adolescence. The onset of puberty brings with it lots of biological changes in your teen’s brain and body. Your teen’s hormones are flaring at this time, and their brain is rapidly developing. However, since their prefrontal cortex is still under construction, your teen is experiencing lots of emotional mood swings as a result of these neuropsychological changes. That’s why a measure of increased moodiness or sadness is normal during these years.

How to Figure out If My Teen Needs Help

While it’s normal for teens to experience an increased level of sadness during adolescence, sometimes your teen’s behavior requires the intervention of a mental health professional. When it comes to moodiness, there are some red flags that indicate your teen’s behavior is not normative. These include self-injurious behavior, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of sadness that are persisting for long periods of time. If your teen is experiencing such symptoms, they might have depression.

Dr. Lauren Kerwin, PhD, Executive Clinical Director of Evolve Treatment Centers, says that while “increased moodiness is normative, long-lasting depression or thoughts of suicide are not.”

Does My Teen Have Depression?

Look through the following list, taken from the DSM-5. If your teen has been experiencing five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks, and one of the five symptoms are A or B, they might have clinical depression:

  1. Depressed mood
  2. Noticeably diminished interest or pleasure in activities
  3. Weight and/or appetite increase/decrease
  4. Slowing down of thought/less physical movement
  5. Always tired, loss of energy
  6. Feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness, excessive guilt
  7. Inability to think clearly, concentrate, or make decisions
  8. Thoughts of death or suicide.*

*Note: If your teen is considering suicide, please call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

Treatment for Teen Depression

If you suspect your teen has depression, bring them in to a licensed mental health professional for an intake or assessment. If indeed they fit the criteria for depression, there are several treatment modalities you can choose from. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) have been proven by research to reduce depression. To supplement therapy, a psychiatrist may also prescribe antidepressants. For serious depression, a teen mental health rehab center may be beneficial. (If your teen has depression and comorbid addiction, they need a dual-diagnosis treatment center.)

You can choose from a residential treatment center (if your teen’s depression is severe and requires 24/7 monitoring) or an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP) for less acute cases. These mental health rehab programs often integrate complementary therapies like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, art therapy, music therapy and more to provide a well-rounded therapeutic experience. Additionally, teen residential treatment centers for depression emphasize sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, and physical exercise on a daily basis: all of which are shown to positively impact a teen’s mental health.

When searching for a teen mental health treatment center, ask whether the RTC, PHP or IOP incorporates Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) into their programming and counseling.