Life’s ups and downs can make anyone moody, especially during adolescence. But when should parents be concerned?
Being a teen isn’t an easy business. They’re juggling a lot — family responsibilities, schoolwork and extracurriculars — all while navigating social pressures and relationships. Add in raging hormones and rapidly changing bodies, thanks to puberty, and teens’ emotions can seesaw rapidly.
“Stress can be a major contributor to depression and anxiety,” says Tawnya Meadows, PhD, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Geisinger. “With so many stressors on a teen’s life, it can be difficult to tell if a child’s mood swings and rebellions are typical or something more serious, like depression.”
Teenage moodiness vs. depression
Depression can occur at any age, but symptoms typically appear during adolescence to early adulthood.
One way to distinguish typical mood swings from depression: Look at the severity of symptoms. Mood swings that seem out of proportion to the circumstances or abrupt changes in behavior, such as frequent crying fits, can be cause for concern. Duration is key, as well — watch for bad moods lasting two weeks or more.
If symptoms are affecting more than one area of your teen’s life, such as a drop in grades as well as frequent arguments at home, that’s also a sign your child needs help.
“A telltale sign your teen’s moodiness could be depression is if your child starts withdrawing from family and especially friends, and stops participating in activities they once enjoyed,” says Dr. Meadows. “A teen who’s sad or moody may drop one activity, but typically replaces it with another to remain active. One who is depressed most often won’t.”
Other warning signs of depression can include:
- Frequent sadness, anxiety or feelings of hopelessness
- Increased or persistent frustration, irritability or anger
- Lack of motivation or energy
- Gloomy moods that last for two weeks or more without improvement
- Difficulty concentrating
- Spending more time alone than usual
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Low self-esteem and thoughts of self-harming or suicide
“If you’re worried about suicide, always ask your child. You’re not going to plant the idea,” Dr. Meadows says. “Always take seriously what your child states, and seek help immediately by reaching out to school counselors, a pediatrician or even the ER.”
How can parents help?
Check in with your teen about what’s going on in their lives — often. Be supportive, listen actively and keep the lines of communication open. Having an ongoing dialogue and regularly spending quality time together means you’ll notice changes sooner.
As best you can, keep teenage kids involved with family events, socializing with friends and being physically active. Eating well and getting enough rest are other key ways they can maintain overall wellness.
If you think your child may be depressed, don’t wait to seek help. A good place to start is with their primary care doctor. Pediatricians and family practice physicians have screening tools to identify depression and can refer your child to a behavioral health specialist, if necessary.
“There is so much overlap in symptoms between typical mood swings and depression that it can be difficult to know what’s what,” says Dr. Meadows. “But if you’re questioning depression, the best advice is to reach out for help. Don’t write anything off as typical teenage drama, because it may just be the sign your child needs help.”
Building a bridge to better behavioral health
The COVID pandemic accelerated a decades-long national rise in suicidal thoughts and attempts among school-age children. In response, Geisinger established the Pediatric Bridge Clinic in April.
The clinic addresses the local need for behavioral health resources by alleviating wait times. The clinic also coordinates follow-up care for young patients who come to the emergency room with a behavioral health crisis.
This extension of Geisinger’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Consultation/Liaison service provides:
- Access to providers skilled in psychiatric emergency care
- Effective psychological and behavioral skills to help kids and families manage psychiatric crises
- Medication management, if needed
- Services making sure kids have a long-term follow-up care plan
Through rapid access to care, the Pediatric Bridge Clinic can shorten a young person’s stay in the ER. And it could lower the chance they’ll need inpatient psychiatric admission or readmission after an ER visit.
Local mental health organizations have even begun referring kids directly to the bridge clinic instead of the ER. “In this way, we have started to become a buffer between the community and the ER, furthering our initial goal of getting kiddos out quickly by preventing them from showing up in the first place,” says Sam Faulkner, PhD, director of the Pediatric Bridge Clinic.
The Pediatric Bridge Clinic was funded in part by the Susan W. McDowell Pediatric Behavioral Health Catalyst Fund and by Project AWARE IMPACT. You can help, too.
Mental health is part of overall health.
That’s why Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine is training all its medical students — regardless of the field of medicine they plan to enter — in mental health first aid. Building mental health literacy gives students key skills to manage crises.
This story originally appeared in PA Health, our quarterly full-color magazine filled with wellness tips, inspiring stories and more.
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