Teen Mood Swings or Depression? Here’s the Difference


Parenting a teen is hard work. These are years of incredible growth for your child as they move through the process of gaining independence from you and ultimately becoming a well-adjusted adult. But the process does quite a number on parents, as a once-sunny child turns sullen and moody, or the one who always did so well in school just doesn’t seem to care anymore.

It doesn’t help that teenagers aren’t very forthcoming with information about what’s going on in their lives or why they’ve become so angry or depressed. Of course, the mind jumps to the worst conclusions, but it’s hard to know for sure. Understanding why teens have such mystifying mood swings and knowing when to be concerned is important for parental peace of mind during these turbulent years.

Why Are Teenagers So Moody?

Changes in brain function that come with adolescence explain the moodiness of teenagers. Perhaps most significant are the changes that occur in the limbic system, which governs emotions, self-control, decision-making and risk-taking behaviors and can result in dramatic mood swings. Moodiness can also be explained by environmental factors, such as their rapidly changing appearance and the ups and down of a teenager’s social life.

Mood Swings or Depression?

Around three million—or nearly 13 percent—of Americans aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in 2015.1 Depression is a serious but treatable disorder that requires professional intervention.

Symptoms of teenage depression include:

  • Changes in mood, such as anger, irritability or sadness
  • Changes in behavior, such as sleeping or eating more or less than normal, using drugs or alcohol or withdrawing from friends or family
  • Feelings like loneliness, apathy or insecurity
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts
  • Perceptual disturbances, such as hallucinations or pain

The more severe these symptoms are, the more likely the teen is suffering from depression and not a mood swing.2 The duration of the symptoms is also important. Any negative changes in mood or behavior that last two weeks or longer could indicate major depression. If any of the symptoms occur in several areas of life, such as home, work, school and friendships, it could indicate they are depressed, rather than simply in a bad mood.

Treating Depression

Adolescent depression affects emotional, social and physical development. The risk factors for depression include parental conflict, inadequate coping skills, problems with social relationships, negative thinking patterns and a family history of depression.

Mood Swings or Depression

A combination of medications and psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is the most effective treatment for adolescent depression.3 Medication helps treat symptoms of depression by balancing neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood and emotion. Therapy addresses the underlying causes of the depression and helps the teen identify unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and replace these with healthier ways of thinking and behaving. It also helps the teen develop essential coping skills for handling anxiety, stress, social problems and other common triggers for depression.

Treatment Helps

The earlier depression is treated, the better. Getting help for depression will not only successfully treat it, but it can also help it from returning later on. Teens will learn essential skills that will help them enjoy a higher level of self-awareness, a better quality of life and a keener sense of well-being. If you believe your child is struggling with depression, contact The Light Program for an evaluation today.


  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/major-depression-among-adolescents.shtml
  2. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/distinguishing-depression-from-normal-adolescent-mood-swings-20100913335
  3. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0901/p442.html