Distinguishing Between Signs of Depression or “Moodiness” in Teens

by Polaris Teen Center | Feb 27, 2019 | Depression, Parenting Tips, Resources

depression and moodiness in teens

Parents often wonder how to distinguish normal teenage mood swings and rebellions from actual symptoms of depression. Fortunately, there are several ways to tell.

As many as 1 in 5 teenagers will experience depression at some point during adolescence.

Unfortunately, many of these teens are never diagnosed, and thus, fail to receive the necessary rehab or treatment. This is often because parents fail to realize their child is struggling with depression and attribute the changes they see in their teen to the “normal” moodiness of adolescence.

Depression vs Moodiness – Know the Signs

There are three main areas of difference when determining whether your teen is experiencing the normal moodiness often associated with adolescence, or if they may have something more serious going on, such as depression.


If you notice your child has had a deterioration of mood and/or behavior that has persisted for longer than two weeks (without any noticeable break), there is a chance they may be struggling with depression.  Teenagers and adolescents may also suffer from Dysthymic Disorder (also referred to at times as minor depression).  In this type of presentation, the symptoms tend to appear on more days than not and persist for at least one year.

Severity of Symptoms

Symptoms of teen depression encompass changes in mood such as an increase in anger, sadness, and/or irritability.  This may also include mood swings that seem out of proportion to the event or circumstance.  Behavior changes such as a spike in crying episodes or “moping around” and withdrawing from friends and family are also often signs of depression. It is important to note if your teen is complaining of physical ailments like headaches, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, abdominal cramps and/or episodes of shortness of breath, as these are often symptoms of depression as well.

Other signs of depression in teens to be aware of include:

  • expressing feelings of loneliness,
  • insecurity, low self-esteem, or lack of confidence
  • apathy, (loneliness, insecurity, apathy), thoughts (hopelessness, worthlessness, thoughts of suicide),
  • fatigue, loss of enthusiasm
  • poor school performance
  • in more severe cases, delusional thinking, and visual or auditory hallucinations may be present.

The more distinct and noticeable these symptoms are, the more likely the problem is depression and not just a passing mood.


Domain refers to the areas of a teenager’s life that appear to be affected by the mood instability.  If you notice problems in several areas of your teen’s functioning, such as at home, in school, and in interactions with friends, they may be suffering from a mood disorder rather than the inherent adolescent moodiness.

Still Not Sure?

If you continue to be confused and uncertain as to whether your teen is going through the moodiness common to adolescence, or something more serious like depression, it is helpful to notice if there have been any changes in their behavior and/or routine.  Of course, it is not unusual for kids to become less talkative and distance themselves from their parents as they move into the adolescent and teen years.

Thus, it may be challenging to be fully aware of changes in your teen.  But, with concerted effort, it is possible to be attentive to these potential changes.  And, regardless of whether or not you think your child may be suffering from depression, it is important for all parents to educate themselves on the symptoms, especially given the staggering rates for teenagers.

  • Interests – one area a parent may notice signs of change in their teen is in the typical activities and interests of the teen. While it is not necessarily a red flag if a teenager loses complete interest in a certain activity, it could be considered concerning if they are not replacing that activity with something else. Withdrawal from activities is often a result of prolonged fatigue, which is a symptom of depression.  If your teen seems to be less engaged in previously enjoyed activities and hobbies, this could be a sign of depression or something more serious.
  • Eating Habits and/or weight changes- if you notice your teenager’s eating habits changing, or a significant change in weight (loss or gain) this may be a sign of an underlying mental health issue. Individuals with depression sometimes experience an increase in appetite, often relying on food for comfort.  Still, some experience a loss of appetite altogether, and the lack of nourishment can, in turn, exacerbate the depression.
  • Sleeping Habits – teenagers tend to sleep a lot, as their bodies need extra rest due to the many changes they are going through (physically, emotionally, etc.). Yet, if your teen begins to sleep even more than usual, or has a significantly difficult time getting out of bed in the morning, you may want to continue to monitor them.  On the flip side, some teens with depression get very little rest, due to having a significant struggle when trying to fall asleep at night.
  • Substance Use – Teenagers often experiment with different substances and/or alcohol. But what is not often talked about is that many of these teens who seem to just be “experimenting” are actually self-medicating. Thus, any substance or alcohol use should be taken as a possible red flag to an underlying mental health issue.
  • Suicidal ideation- if your teen is expressing suicidal thoughts, they are very likely suffering from depression, and not just typical teenage moodiness.

These are the five areas in a teenager’s life, parents should be cognizant about if trying to distinguish between moodiness or something more serious

 Other things you can do

Have your teen screened for depression.

            Reaching out to your child’s primary care physician or a mental health professional to schedule a screening is vital if you are uncertain whether your child may have depression.  A screening will include:

  • Questionnaire/assessment by professional
  • Private talk with your teen

Talk to your teen

            Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of depression with your teenager.  Let them know it is OK to talk about and give them the space to express themselves openly and honestly.  It is also OK to ask your teenager flat out if they are depressed.  And remember that just because your teen may initially say they are not feeling depressed (for a variety of reasons), it doesn’t mean you should stop being aware of their behavior and moods.

 Encourage healthy activities

            Even if you are unsure if your teen is struggling with depression, it doesn’t hurt to encourage them to do things that promote overall wellbeing such as getting exercise, nourishing their body appropriately, socializing, and practicing daily self-care.

 Take care of yourself

            Having a teenager can be stressful.  And if you are concerned about your child’s mental health, that stress is likely exacerbated.  In order to provide your teen with the necessary support, and continue to be a healthy parent, you must make sure you are taking care of yourself.  This not only means practicing daily self-care (eating, sleeping, exercise), but also seeking your own support through friends, family, support groups, and/or therapy.

If you have a child struggling with depression, it’s important to find the right help quickly. Polaris Teen Center specializes in the treatment of adolescent mental health disorders, including depression and major depressive disorder. For more information on treatment options, programs, or insurance verification, contact our admissions department at (844) 836-0222.

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Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).