Distinguishing “Normal” Behavior from Depression in Teens

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During puberty, many teenagers go through mood swings and other behaviors associated with adolescence. In addition to puberty, there are a lot of other life events and changes that occur that can lead teens to feel inadequate, sad, or isolated. As a result, many parents struggle with determining what is normal behavior and what are signs of depression in a teenager. There are three distinguishing factors parents can use to determine whether a new behavior is simply a phase that will pass or an underlying indicator of mental illness.

Signs of Depression in Teens

Depression in teenagers can be different from depression in adults. Here are some symptoms to look for that are often specific to teens:

  • Withdrawal from social life or lack of interest (anhedonia)
  • Irritability
  • Aches and pains without medical cause
  • Vulnerability to criticism
  • Poor school performance
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Anger

3 Things to Distinguish Normal Behavior from Depression

You might be thinking that many of the symptoms mentioned above are normal teenage behavior. This is why it can be very difficult for parents and loved ones to distinguish differences. Generally, there are three important considerations that can distinguish typical adolescent behavior from depression.

Severity of Symptoms

Certain changes are normal, but you want to be cognizant of the potential signs of depression in teens if any of these changes seem excessive. For example, a teen sleeping for nine hours per night is no real reason for concern, but if your child sleeps for hours on end during the middle of the day, then there may be an underlying issue. On the other hand, if you notice your child isn’t getting adequate sleep, this could also be a sign of depression.

Symptoms Across Multiple Areas of Life

A teenager’s overall mood toward one specific area in life may change. It is natural for your child to function differently in high school compared to junior high. A teacher may tell you that your teenager has become more reserved in class and is not as talkative as normal. This may show the teen is having problems with a certain class, but as long as your child remains open at home and around friends, it probably is not indicative of major depressive disorder.

When a child is disengaged or withdrawn at home, school, and with friends or family, this could be a sign of a mood disorder. If a teacher picks up on an unusual behavior that you’re also noticing at home, you may need to have an open dialogue about steps to get professional help.

Length of Symptoms

Certain events, such as breaking up with a significant other or a fight with a friend, may cause a teenager to be understandably sad for several days. This is normal, and parents should support their teens to help them cope with their emotions in a healthy way. However, if these depressive episodes last for an extended period of time—typically more than two weeks without a change—it could be a sign of depression. It can be hard to know how long is appropriate for a child to feel a certain way, so if you’re unsure, consult a teacher, guidance counselor, or professional if you have concerns.

Keep the lines of communication open with your teen and encourage them to talk about how they feel. It’s important to validate their feelings. What might seem silly to you could feel very real to them. When in doubt, it can help tremendously to sit down and talk with your teenager if you notice excessive mood swings and other problems that were not there previously.

Early intervention is crucial. Mood disorders can lead to destructive or risk-taking behaviors. Depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. Fortunately, there are many treatment and therapy options for teens struggling with depression or other mood disorders.

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