Spend enough time around a tweenager or teenager and you may find your head spinning with the peaks and valleys of their mood. At times, it may seem as if you can’t say or do anything without facing the wrath of your adolescent. Sadness, irritability, and mood swings are part of the journey of growing up. However, when symptoms last longer than two weeks, become more intense, or don’t appear mixed with periods of joy, you may want to consider that your child could be depressed.
So, how can you tell if it’s moodiness or depression? Check out these warning signs:
This might mean that they are sleeping a lot or sleeping very little. Depression can cause changes to the sleep patterns, such as sleeping and napping a lot. Alternately, they may feel exhausted during the day but be wide awake at night. Not getting enough quality sleep can quickly impact your teen’s mood and contribute to emotional vulnerability. Having a consistent bedtime and banning phones, tablets and computers from the bedroom can help get sleep back on track.
You may notice that your child is eating more or less than what’s typical for them. For example, they may refuse breakfast, avoid dinner or you may notice their lunchbox comes back full. Alternately, you may notice your child eating more–typically foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugars, which mimic feel-good chemicals in the brain.
When it comes to mental health, the mind/body connection is real. Depression tends to show up in the body as headaches, stomachaches, or muscle soreness, for example. Your child may not have the words to express their emotions, but their body is likely reacting to mental pain through physical symptoms. That said, parents should check out the physical symptoms while paying attention to potential emotional causes.
A child with depression may have difficulty initiating tasks, keeping focused attention or completing tasks. They may lose interest quickly or give up easily when faced with a challenge. Additionally, you may notice that your teen wants to give up an after-school activity or doesn’t make plans to see their friends as often as usual. These tasks take emotional and physical energy, and someone with depression may often feel depleted and not up to exerting the effort.
Deciphering between typical tween/teen attitude and depression-fueled irritability can take some exploration. Ask yourself, Is your child grumpy in several settings (i.e. school, home, with friends)? Are they moody for no apparent reason? Do you think they are over-reacting? Anger that seems over the top in its intensity, duration and frequency may be a sign of depression. Low frustration-tolerance can be a sign of depression, in some cases.
However, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, a depressed child may show little emotion and may describe their feelings as “numb, empty, blank, or neutral.” Accordingly, parents may become worried when they notice their child displaying signs of apathy, and they are right to worry. Hopelessness and apathy can be a sign that depression is worsening and should be addressed.
Sadness (with or without a reason)
Feeling sad or down is common for someone who is depressed. There may be a valid reason to feel sad or there may be no specific or external reason for depression. When this is the case, guilt and shame are often associated feelings. For example, a child may think “what do I have to feel sad about?” or “my life isn’t that bad, why am I depressed?” A parent may think, “I’ve given them everything, why isn’t that enough to make them happy?” Questions like this may cause guilt or shame and are generally unhelpful.
Thoughts of Worthlessness
There is more to depression than just feelings and emotions. It is just as important to explore the thoughts connected to sad feelings. If your child is not able to describe how they are feeling, ask them what they’ve been thinking about. Try questions like “what do you think is the best thing about you?” or “what do your friends like to do with you?” to help you understand how they think about themselves and their self-esteem.
In isolation, these symptoms are not cause for alarm. However, if a combination of these symptoms appear and don’t improve after a few weeks, consider making an appointment with a doctor or therapist, to be safe. If you notice these symptoms, it’s worth exploring if it’s just moodiness or adolescent depression. Above all, listen to what your your kids are telling you, trust your gut and reach out for help if needed.
If you or your child is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK. This information does not substitute medical advice.