Is It Depression or Just Normal Teenage Moodiness?

 In Blog, Child & Adolescent Assessment, Child & Adolescent Treatment, Psychological Services

Parents often come to us with the following concerns/questions: Is my child depressed? Do they need medication?  What can I do to help them? Like many psychological and developmental disorders, depression occurs along a continuum.  One can experience a mild short lasting depression due a major life event such as changing schools, loss, or parents divorcing.  An individual can also have temperamental tendencies (e.g. sensitivity, introversion, negativity) that lend themselves more to depressive feelings or may be very affected by the change in seasons (e.g. less sunlight in the winter).  Finally, and much less common (occurring in only 5 percent of the population according to www.aacap.org ), adolescents can have a major depressive episode or a bipolar disorder with depression being one pole of the illness.  

Consider the following scenarios.  Your 13 year old daughter is sulky and quiet.  She wants to quit dance, something she has enjoyed for years.  However, when her peers come calling, she is all smiles and runs out the door to be with them.  She is doing okay in school, when you remind her to do her homework. Alternatively, your 17 year old son’s marks have suddenly dropped.  He no longer wants to go out with his peers and spends many hours in his room, sleeping. He used to love hockey but now no longer wants to play.  Which one of these young people is depressed and which one is just going through a more typical adolescent phase.

In the scenarios above, we would be more concerned about the 17 year old boy because of the extreme changes in his behaviour and his withdrawal from peers.  The most common and evidence based treatment for depression is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a short term treatment approach that focuses on changing how we view and evaluate ourselves and teaches positive coping strategies.  Another promising treatment approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses more on accepting your temperamental tendencies but setting specific goals (based on your values) for behaviour change. While medication is becoming an increasingly common treatment for adolescent depression, it remains controversial and should never be the only treatment provided.  Depression is likely to reoccur unless the individual learns way to cope with negative thoughts and unhealthy behaviour patterns. Simple changes in behaviour can also make a huge difference. For example, we know that increasing physical activity, reducing stress and helping others who are less fortunate than you, are all ways to battle depression.

What can a parent do?  Offer support, validate your teens emotional experiences without judgment and express hope for the future.  Be aware of who your teen is friends with and what they typically do on a daily basis so that you know when their patterns of behaviour change.  Talk to your teen, keep the lines of communication open and let them know you are always available to them. Seek professional help if you are concerned about your teen or if you notice any sudden changes in behaviour, mood or patterns of daily living.

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