Normal Adolescent Mood Swings or Depression?

Normal Adolescent Mood Swings or Depression?

Making a distinction between the two can be difficult.

Stephanie Pironne says her daughter Lila was always a child who was well-behaved. From preschool through elementary school, she was described by her teachers as having a kind and cheerful nature. When her daughter, now 13 years old and in eighth grade, began middle school, something changed.

“She now goes from happy to grumpy to sad all within 15 minutes and with nothing around her having changed,” said Pironne. “I’m always on edge when she comes down for breakfast in the morning because I never know what I’m going to get. She might be yelling at me for something I didn’t know I’d done, giving me the silent treatment or happy and chatty or combination of all three.

Such emotional roller coasters are often a part of puberty. Hormonal changes that happen when puberty begins can cause not only bodily physical changes, but mood swings that can feel out of control, say mental health professionals. It’s often difficult for parents and those close to teens learn to distinguish normal changes in mood from a more serious mental health issue.

“It's really, really hard to do, because they can present in very much the same way, and aren't always two distinct categories,” said psychologist Stacie Isenberg, Psy.D. “Also, sometimes [puberty-driven mood swings], do get treated with medication. I've had patients who were prescribed birth control and some who were prescribed antidepressants.”

The severity of the symptoms, says Carol Barnaby, MSW, LCSW-C can help make the distinction,” said therapist Carol Barnaby, MSW, LCSW-C. “Crying spells or deep sadness for no apparent reason is a sign. Displaying a loss of energy or isolating themselves from others and persistent low self-esteem are also signals.”

“If your child's mood seems off with regularity or they are withdrawing or increasingly irritable, I would advise parents to get a professional assessment,” added Isenberg. “You can start with you pediatrician, and based on their recommendation, you may want to have your child see a psychologist or psychiatrist.”

The amount of time the symptoms last could also be a clue that professional help is needed. “Teen depression is normally indicated by a persistent change in mood that lasts two weeks or more,” said Barnaby. “The change in mood seems to cause significant distress and problems that show up at home, school, during extra-curricular activities, and in social areas of life.”

A desire to hurt oneself is an indicator of a mental health issue that is more serious than normal teen mood swings, said Barnaby.

“If your child ever talks about self-harm like cutting themselves, refusing to attend school or other activities they previously enjoyed, those are signs that you should seek help immediately.

If your child talks …or has thoughts about suicide or not wanting to be around, seek professional help immediately,” added Isenberg.

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