Teen Angst or Teen Depression?

Teen Angst or Teen Depression?

Parents of teens often find themselves living with a surly, reclusive adolescent who is difficult to connect with. Teens face a host of changes impacting their physical body, their understanding of themselves, and their interactions with the world around them. The turmoil and uncertainty these changes create make it difficult for parents to differentiate between depression and normal teen growing pains.

Teen depression is a serious health problem and, if left undetected, impacts every aspect of a teen’s life and can even lead to death. However, if detected, it can be successfully treated and the impact upon the teen’s life minimized.

Teens rely on parents, teachers, and other caregivers to recognize their struggles and get them help when they need it. This makes it important for adults to know how to identify the warning signs of depression in the teens.

Signs of Teen Depression

Warning signs of depression in teens are not always obvious. Many teens with depression don’t appear sad as one would expect. Instead, depressed teens often seem irritable, angry, and agitated much of the time.

While a certain amount of moodiness and acting out is normal for teens, persistent changes in personality, mood or behavior are red flags something outside of the norm may be occurring. The key differences are in how much of the time your teen is exhibiting these symptoms, how severe the symptoms are, and how different these symptoms are from your teens normal interactions.

While hormones and stress explain occasional bouts of teen angst, continuous and unrelenting unhappiness, lethargy, or irritability indicate something more serious. In addition to irritability and sadness, if you observe a consistent increase in several of the following symptoms it may indicate depression:

  • Tearfulness or crying outbursts
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Eating more or less than normal
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Change in school performance
  • Sleeping more or less than normal
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Lack of energy
  • Unexplained aches and pains

Start a Conversation

Depression can be very damaging when left untreated. It is important not to simply wait and hope the symptoms dissipate on their own. Even if you are unsure the issue is depression, you need to start a conversation with your teen about the concerning behaviors and emotions you have been observing.

Start by letting your teen know you care about them and want to help. Let them know you have been noticing specific changes in their behavior and emotions and want to understand what is happening for them. Ask them to help you understand what they are going through and be ready to really listen to whatever they share.

Focus on Listening

Resist the urge to ask a lot of questions as this can cause teens to feel interrogated and controlled instead of heard and understood.

You will also need to refrain from criticizing or passing judgment on what your teen shares.  No one, regardless of age, wants to share their thoughts and feelings only to be told what is wrong with what they shared or what they should do to fix it.

Focus on letting your teen know you are unconditionally willing to listen to whatever they choose to share.

 Validate Their Experience

When your teen shares, the feelings and concerns they unload may seem trivial, silly, or irrational. It is important to guard against attempting to move your teen out of what they are thinking and feeling.

Attempts to explain why things aren’t as bad as they seem to your teen are experienced as one more person who doesn’t “get it” or is unwilling to take them seriously.

As your teen risks allowing you access to their world, acknowledge the pain and sadness they are experiencing even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Until your teen knows you understand, they won’t be open to any suggestions you may have.

Collaborate to Determine Treatment Choices

When the symptoms your teen is experiencing are making it difficult for them to function effectively, it is time to seek professional assistance. Mental health professionals comfortable treating teens can help diagnose and treat the difficulties your teen is experiencing.

However, when exploring treatment options, it is important to always get your teen’s input. If you want your teen to be motivated and engaged in treatment, it is important to respect their preferences and avoid making unilateral decisions whenever possible. Involving your teen in the decision-making process will help them to feel comfortable and connected to the health care professionals providing their care.

Maintain Hope

While around 20% of teens experience depression, when the adults in their world help them to talk about what they are experiencing and obtain treatment for their depression, these teens recover and live healthy and fulfilling lives.


Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa. She has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director.

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