Skip to main content
Moody Teenager or Depression?

You are listening to Health Library:

Moody Teenager or Depression?

Jan 25, 2021

Most teenagers experience changes in their mood and emotions during puberty, whether it be trying to isolate themselves in their room, not wanting to do things with the family, or general irritability. These can also be the signs of depression. Psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Conover explains what questions you should be asking yourself —and your teenager—to help identify if it’s typical teenage moodiness or if you should seek professional help.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Moody teenager or depression? When is the time to seek help? That's what we're going to find out today.

Dr. Thomas Conover is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. He is also board-certified in general pediatrics, and he has taken care of teens with and without depression for over 20 years.

Dr. Conover, when a parent comes to you or walks up to you or sees you at a party or something like that, and they say, "Dr. Conover, I've got a question for you. I've got a teenager. I'm a little bit concerned," what kinds of words do they start to use to describe their concern with their teenager?

Dr. Conover: You'll often hear about moodiness or irritability, being more isolative than usual, simply not wanting to do things with the family the way that they used to. Those are some of the most frequent keywords that parents who are concerned about their child's behavior or mood as a teenager will say to me.

Interviewer: And when you hear those words . . . certainly, when I hear those words, I think, "Well, that's a teenager." Right? So is it a little difficult to determine when to be concerned and when not to be concerned?

Dr. Conover: It sure is. Even as a practicing psychiatrist all these years, if I hear a parent say that their teen is moody or irritable, I don't immediately jump to the assumption that he or she is depressed.

Interviewer: So then you would, I would imagine, start asking some questions, trying to get a little bit more information. What are some of those questions that you would start to ask to start to make the decision whether or not there was something to be concerned about?

Dr. Conover: One question is, "How long has it been going on?" That's a common question in medical inquiry in general. Another is severity. Just how bad of moodiness or irritability are we talking about here? I always think too about how is the youth functioning. That's a really important thing.

So particularly, in a casual setting, if a parent just asks me a question about their teenager, a lot of times I'll ask, "How are they doing in terms of their other life pursuits?" So if a youth seems to be more moody and irritable but he or she is still doing all the things that they would normally do, still functioning in school, still recreating with friends, still engaged in other activities, but just kind of crabby, I'm a lot less concerned.

Not unconcerned, because there are some youth or adults too who are suffering but still managing to eke out their function because it's that important to them to do well in school, or with their sports, or whatever else they do. But I am often reassured if a teen is still doing the things that he or she normally would do despite the apparent problem with mood.

Interviewer: At what point does a parent say, "You know what? We should go talk to somebody"? When does it become something that a parent can help? Because it would occur to me that any of these little symptoms would be something you might want to talk about anyway. If the grades are starting to fall, you might want to approach that topic. If they're defiant a lot more, you might want to say, "I've noticed a change in . . ." Or maybe you don't want to say it like that. Help me out.

Dr. Conover: It's always okay to ask your child about how they're doing. And even though a lot of times teens may seem outwardly like they don't want someone to ask, most of the time people who are struggling, even in a small way, do want someone to ask.

I think it's helpful not to badger. I think if you're met with that initial "no" on a first inquiry, it's good for a parent to say, "Well, okay. I hear that you're saying that there's nothing about it that you want to talk about. But just know that I'd be happy to talk to you if you change your mind about that, if you do want to talk about it."

It's, I think, always appropriate to ask, and it's always appropriate to maybe give a little space and a little time for the teen to be able to absorb the question and respond.

Now, that would be with the exception of a true emergency, and those emergencies do include threats or acts of self-harm, or threats or acts of a suicidal nature, or serious aggression.

Interviewer: So we have a pretty good idea of some of the different behaviors we might see that might indicate that a teen is depressed or heading towards depression. We've learned that the first step really is to try to talk about it and be genuinely concerned and not force, not corner. If you get met with some rejection, give the teen some space. At what point then does a parent seek professional help if they're just so frustrated, they are convinced something is up, and they just don't know what to do?

Dr. Conover: The primary care provider is equipped with enough training and understanding about childhood and teen depression to help to evaluate that and may then refer on to other resources.

Interviewer: I feel my approach would be I'd want to find out even more information. Maybe I might want to go to a professional on my own before I take the step of involving the teen in the process, because I'd be afraid that maybe doing that would somehow damage our relationship or cause problems. What's your take on that?

Dr. Conover: My take on that is twofold. On one hand, I think it's perfectly reasonable for a parent to seek education or support from other resources themselves. An initial inquiry in that fashion might mean that the parent would do some reading. They might get online and go to a reputable source such as the websites for the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, both of which have really good information about child and teen development and kind of the presentation of various problems and resources for how to respond.

It might take the form of talking to a family member, a friend, a clergyperson, or the parent's own physician. All of those could be things that a parent could do.

On the other hand, I do think people may make the mistake of not asking, not saying something, not doing something for fear that it might damage the relationship. And it has very rarely been the case in my experience, even if asking or stating that observation leads to a fight or argument in the short term.

Interviewer: As that parent that asked you initially if they should be concerned about their teenager walks away, what would be the last thing that you would say to them?

Dr. Conover: "Let me know if there's more help that I could give." You can go off in one direction, make a decision to act, and maybe that initial effort comes up not as fruitful as you had hoped. So I would hope that people would feel open to asking for help again or talking more about it.

But it can be an uncomfortable topic. My experience both as a clinician and as a parent myself is that parents want their kids to be happy. They want them to feel okay. And it can be very, very troubling, very sad to contemplate that their child may not feel okay, that they might not be all right. And so it's really hard to ask and really hard to bring up, because you don't want it to be so.