When we think of depression, we tend to imagine a person who is sad for an extended period of time. And although it’s true that sadness is often a key symptom, depression can also present itself as irritability. The same is true for your teenager, although in their case, because they are also experiencing mood swings as a result of the shifting hormones that accompany puberty, determining whether their irritability is normal or something more worrisome can be a little more complicated.
Dealing with shifting hormones, along with all the other stressors of being a teenager, including school, friends, and extracurriculars, is tough. Your teenager can cycle between happiness and irritability over the course of a few hours, and that’s completely normal. Sometimes, though, your teenager’s irritability may be a sign they are depressed and need help.
So how do you tell the difference between normal teenage irritability and irritability that is caused by depression?
With depression-related irritability, duration and environment matter
“Typical irritability comes and goes, and comes back to baseline relatively easily, and you are able to engage them with relative ease,” Bernstein said. Irritability that is related to depression, on the other hand, will persist for much longer, and also be seen in multiple environments.
For example, if your teenager is grumpy when they get home and you are trying to ask them about their day, but happy when they are with their friends or doing their usual extracurricular activities, that might be normal behaviour. If they are unusually irritable one day, but their usual self on others, that’s also a sign their mood swings are just part of normal teenage life, rather than something more.
“When we are talking about the difference between irritability and depression, we are really looking at two things,” Bernstein said. “One is duration. How long does it last? Does it feel like they are always angry, always irritable, never returning back down to baseline, but it’s not just a day; it’s on-going, for weeks?”
The other factor is environment. If your teenager is irritable in one environment, such as school, but not at home or with their friends, then that could just be normal irritability. If they are irritable in multiple environments, though, particularly while doing activities they once enjoyed, that’s a sign something more might be going on.
“If across environments, you are seeing this irritability, that’s a sign there’s something going on that’s not just irritability,” Bernstein said.
It’s also important to look for any changes in how your teen is functioning, whether it’s how they are doing at school, in their extracurricular activities, or in their personal relationships. If they were previously engaged in a lot of activities, only to become less engaged over time, that’s another sign something might be wrong.
How to talk to your teen if you think they are depressed
As a parent, it’s important to realise that as difficult as your teenager’s anger may be, it is often serving as a protective mechanism for someone who may not understand what is going on or how to process their emotions.
“If I’m feeling sad, and it is really difficult for me to talk about that sadness, if I have a reaction of anger when someone approaches me, that person is likely to repel away from me, and it can serve as a function to protect me in my little bubble,” Bernstein said. “It can also feel really good, because anger feels like it has a function, whereas depressive symptoms don’t always. Kids might not know why they’re sad all the time, they might not know why they don’t have pleasure in activities anymore, why they feel so tired all the time, why they don’t want to do stuff.”
However, if their parent is bothering them, this gives a teenager an easy target to blame, one that they can take their anger out on, rather than acknowledging some very confusing emotions. So when it comes to talking to your teen, it’s important to come from a place of compassion and curiosity. And as hard as it may be, it’s also important not to react to their anger.
“Anger often does not respond well to anger,” Bernstein said. As she points out, it can be all too easy to get caught in a loop of parents and teenager being angry with each other, when there’s something else going on instead.
How to find help for your teen
If you think your teenager may be depressed, it’s important to be proactive and to seek out help. A good place to start is your paediatrician or any counseling services at their school.
“Early intervention is always the best,” Bernstein said. “The worst-case scenario is that they’ll say your teenager doesn’t need help, and at least then, you’ll know that they’re ok.”