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Teen Emotions: Moodiness or Depression?

We all interact with teens. We’re parents, grandparents, coaches, mentors. We hire the kid next door to mow; we chat while they bag groceries. So we know teens usually have a few more down days than up.

Part of our job as nurturers of these souls is to understand whether the down days are part of normal moodiness or point to clinical depression. But what’s normal?

For teens, ups and downs can be expected because of physiological changes. Teens’ emotional maturity doesn’t always keep up with the rapid growth of their bodies. To a certain extent, then, moodiness comes with the territory.

However, if mood swings don’t let up—or they’re out of proportion to circumstances—we need to consider the possibility of clinical depression. Teens who are clinically depressed can’t pull themselves out of it and need our proactive support.

As you spend time with your teens, watch for signs of depression, and don’t hesitate to visit a counselor or doctor for evaluation. The line between moodiness and clinical depression can sometimes be difficult to see.

Major symptoms of clinical depression

  • Persistent sadness and/or irritability. This can include frequent crying, fatigue, withdrawal, and isolation, losing interest in favorite activities, poor school performance, and outbursts of anger.
  • Painful thoughts that manifest as relentless introspection, persistent anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness.
  • Physical symptoms such as insomnia, changes in appetite, headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, abdominal cramps, and episodes of shortness of breath (and in rare cases,delusional thinking and hallucinations).

How symptoms typically unfold in teens—and what to do

  • Stage one: Inability to concentrate, withdrawal from friends, impulsive acts, and declining academic performance. Encourage your teen to talk openly. Let them know that you’re concerned and want to help.
  • Stage two: Acts of aggression, rapid mood swings, loss of friends, mild rebellion, and sudden changes in personality. Get help from a trusted youth pastor, counselor, or doctor.
  • Stage three: Overt rebellion, visible depression, extreme fatigue, giving away prized possessions, expressions of hopelessness, and suicidal threats or actions. These are alarm bells. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).  

Encourage the teens in your life

Emotions come with being human, and our children need guidance to navigate their feelings. We have to be ambassadors of hope to teens as they struggle to find truth and purpose in an often-confusing season. How?

  • Be present. Invite conversation and listen carefully to what your teens share.
  • Pray with your teens and for them.
  • Reinforce that it’s OK to not be OK—and it’s safe to be honest about what feels overwhelming.
  • Remove stigma about taking appropriate medication. Antidepressants can normalize brain function; they’re not addictive or an escape from reality.

For a deeper look, check out Connecting With Your Emotional Teens and Is Your Teen Stressed or Depressed? We also recommend Alive to Thrive, a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide.