It’s a cliche that teenagers act moody, sullen, or argumentative. Some parents want to know where the line is between “normal” teen behavior and what are signs that something more serious is going on?
Before we begin, I want to say that your gut instinct is always going to give you more specific advice to your situation. If you feel like there is reason to worry, that may be enough “evidence” to reach out to an expert. You can talk to your child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or reach out to a therapist. You can also schedule a free, 15-minute consultation to talk with me about your situation.
Why are so many teenagers “moody?”
One important factor is puberty. In addition to physical development, puberty introduces hormonal changes, as well as continued brain development. Some of these changes in mood are a window into your teenager’s brain.
While we would like to think that all parts of the brain develop at the same pace (like coordination improves at the same rate as verbal skills), this isn’t the case. Early in adolescence, the limbic system, which involve emotional reactivity, is strongly connected to the rest of the brain. The frontal lobe, which helps with planning and decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until late adolescence/early adulthood (around age 25). Its connections to the rest of the brain are less robust at first.
The imbalances between these two systems often play out in behavior. The limbic system sends highly emotional messages, such as “Panic!” “I love this!” or “This sucks!” The frontal lobe, on the other hand often has an inhibitory effect on other areas of the brain. Essentially, the frontal lobe tells the other areas of the brain to chill out. In adolescence, the limbic system can yell “OH NO!” while the frontal lobe is only able to whisper “Shhh, limbic system. Chill out…” As a result, it’s a lot harder for teens to regulate their emotions and behaviors.
This discrepancy often earns teenagers the “moody, impulsive, overdramatic” label, even if they’re just doing the best with what their brain has given them.
When is moodiness a problem?
Some parents ask me when it’s time to see a therapist. As circular as it sounds, moodiness is a problem when it becomes a problem.
By that, I mean it’s an issue when it interferes with daily life, relationships, and goals. If your teenager is unusually argumentative, withdrawn, or has difficulty enjoying things, it’s possible that they could benefit from some extra help.
Things don’t have to be at a certain level of “dire” or “clinically significant” in order to get help.
In fact, early intervention can help teenagers develop emotional resilience and coping skills to get through more difficult times later on.
Is my teen depressed?
If you’re worried that your child is really struggling there are a few signs to look out for.
Low self-esteem, feeling “worthless”
Sensitivity to criticism - responding by crying or a fear of being criticized
Aggression, irritability and agitation
Withdrawing from friends, interests, and/or family
Numbing behavior - these can include drug use, overeating, or “zoning out” on the internet
Problems at school - grades dropping, difficulty concentrating, and decreased engagement in class
Fatigue - while many teens sleep a lot, any huge increases in sleeping may signal a problem. This may also show up as moving more slowly while walking, eating, or doing other tasks
Grooming issues - problems with basic hygiene (like showering, brushing teeth) and grooming (such as brushing hair, wearing clean clothes)
Unexplained headaches, stomach aches, or other pains
If your teen has had some of these symptoms for a few weeks at a time, it's possible that they have depression.
You can start talking to your teenager by letting them know what changes you’ve been seeing and why you’re worried about them. Many people, not just teenagers, have a hard time talking about depression. Once you’ve brought up the topic, the best thing you can do is listen.
It may be very tempting to interject, ask questions, or dispute some of the things they’re saying (You’re not worthless! You’re doing great!).
Letting them express how they feel and remaining open and nonjudgmental goes a long way.
Your child may not want to talk about it at first. You can let them know you care about them and want to listen, even though it may be hard for them to talk. By leaving the door open, you help them feel safe and make it easier to share in the future.
If you feel like your child needs help but doesn’t want to face their feelings, you can reach out to an adult that they already have a connection with, such as a teacher or school counselor. You can also reach out to therapists to see if they can help you come up with a game plan.
It’s not easy watching your child struggle. The important thing to know is that you aren’t alone.
Want more support? Read more about our teen counseling services, for things like anxiety, depression PTSD, and body image issues. Or, check out our counseling for transgender teens. If you’want to find out more about starting therapy, feel free to reach out.