Overnight your sweet, considerate, cooperative child changes into a surly, rude, self-absorbed monster. What happened? Puberty, hormones, neurological and physical changes all affect your teen’s moods and behavior. But when does so-called normal teen moodiness cross the line into more fearsome territories like anxiety, depression, or a mood disorder? When is it right to worry?
There is a difference between usual teenage moodiness and behavior that indicates serious problems like mental illness.
Teenage Mood or Early Warning—How to Tell the Difference?
Some types of behavior that drive parents nuts still fall within the normal range. Others are early warnings of possible mental illness.
Teens need to separate from parents and family. They also need more privacy than some families can accommodate. The resulting frustration can contribute to short tempers and outbursts of anger. Your teen may prefer the company of friends to spending time with the family. He or she may retreat to their room, spend hours online, and get defensive when you ask what’s going on. These behaviors, though unpleasant, are not signs of illness.
Events that seem minor to you can rock your teenager’s world. She can be thrown off by not being able to find the right clothes to wear that day or devastated by doing badly on a test. Being rejected by the cool kids at school, having a cell phone malfunction or fighting with your boyfriend or girlfriend can cause a major meltdown. As your teen gains experience and perspective, events like these won’t be so disruptive.
It’s a Different World
The world is changing—and quickly. These days teenagers live their emotional lives, not just with people, but on the screens of their electronic devices. They’re overstimulated, overloaded with information, and overwhelmed. Behavior that wasn’t normal when parents were teens is more likely to be the social norm now. Kids experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex at earlier ages. You may disapprove, and you are right to take such steps as you can to keep your teen from danger, but these behaviors may indicate changes in the social norm rather than problems with your child.
When Are You Right to Worry?
There’s a fine line between typical teen behavior, caused by what’s happening in their still-developing brains (the human brain is not fully developed until our mid-20’s) and bodies, and actions that signal something more serious. Situations to be aware of:
The behavior Is extreme – Moods like irritability, anger, or sadness may be typical of teens. But when symptoms are severe, be concerned.
Here are some red flags:
Unusual changes in sleeping or eating habits
Resistance to school, or significant decrease in academic performance
Taking drugs or alcohol
Frequent anger, aggression
Thoughts of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
Dangerous, reckless, or illegal behavior
These signs indicate the problem is not just a passing mood. Your teen may be suffering from depression or another mental illness.
The Behavior Lasts a Long Time
Disturbing behavior or bad moods that last two weeks or longer are causes for concern. And, when symptoms show up for most of a year or so, depression could be the cause.
The Behavior Happens in More Than One Place – A mood related to a particular event, like a problem with a teacher, will occur around that situation. But if the moody behavior happens in several areas of your teen’s life—at home, at school, and with friends, it could be a mood disorder, not just a bad mood.
Indications of something beyond normal moodiness range from changes in behavior to physical symptoms. Some areas to watch:
Changed Sleep Patterns
Teenagers need a lot of sleep—nine and a half hours, say most experts—and they’re super busy with homework, sports, extracurricular activities and their all-important social lives. But if your teen has irregular sleep patterns, can’t sleep, wakes up repeatedly throughout the night or stays in bed all weekend, take note.
Using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, that is, to keep from feeling down, risks addiction. Sadly, both drugs and alcohol make depression worse. If your teen is using, find out why. Self-medicating is a clue that your teen isn’t feeling well so don’t punish right away, ask questions in an open, non-judgmental tone.
Talking back, pushing against the rules, and challenging parents is a teenager’s job. But take note of how your teen acts out. How often does it happen? When you respond calmly and consistently deal out consequences for the poor behavior, what’s the reaction? It’s one thing for your teen daughter to have a fit, with yelling, followed by being able to calm down and discuss what’s bothering her. It’s another if she can’t calm herself, threatens you or herself, and continues to act recklessly.
Depression and anxiety can show themselves by bodily aches and pains. Recurrent stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain and medical problems with no physical explanation can also be symptoms of depression.
Everybody needs to be alone now and then, especially teens, who need time away from parents and siblings. But if your teen used to meet his buddies to play ball or skateboard and now refuses to leave his room, find out why. If she used to enjoy meeting friends to hang out and now spends all her time in her room, it’s something to check. Withdrawal is a significant sign of depression.
Know the Signs
Normal teenage moodiness, given time, eases. The tantrums, drama, and acting out will soon be a thing of the past. Your child matures, grows back into himself, and all is well. But it’s good to know the symptoms of more serious mood problems. Take note of your teen’s behavior: over sleeping consistently, substance use, acting out, physical symptoms, and withdrawal from social activity, and reach out for help if necessary.
If you’re concerned about your child and want a helping hand, call me and let’s get you and child on track to ease the worry.