Is It Sadness or is It Serious? How to Pick Up on Depression

Emotions can run high with teenagers. So how can parents determine when teen moodiness is normal, or if it could be something more serious like depression?

Think Cause and Effect for Sadness

If something positive happens, like getting a good grade or making a sports team, a teen will likely react with emotions of happiness and excitement. Alternatively, when a teen does NOT do well on a test or does NOT make the sports team, he or she will likely react with emotions of sadness or disappointment. As time passes, these very high and very low emotions will typically fade.

Think Sustained Unexplained Emotions for Depression

Depression, on the other hand, may have no clear cause or can start as general feelings that linger indefinitely or balloon up and consume the teen’s life. While sadness is considered a common symptom, depression can also be masked by anger, irritability or agitation. In fact, these symptoms are often more dominant than sadness in teenage depression. Depression can also start with a clear cause, but the emotions don’t dissipate over time or worsen.

“Parenting teenagers can feel like an emotional roller coaster at times,” said Jamie Snyder, MD, a CHI Health child and adolescent psychiatrist. “But don’t forget that some ups and downs in a teenager’s emotions are normal. If these emotions don’t get any better after two weeks, it might be time to seek professional help.”

Why Kids Can't 'Snap Out of It'

Depression is more than sadness — it’s a medical disease. It might be a knee-jerk reaction to tell a teen who is acting mopey to “snap out of it” or “just get over it.” But it can actually be physically impossible for teens to change those actions.

When someone is depressed it means their brain is not producing enough serotonin and therefore it’s challenging for the brain to do “normal” things.

“Think about it like this: Just like you cannot will a type 1 diabetic to naturally produce more insulin, you cannot ask a depressed person to produce more serotonin,” said Jamie Snyder, MD, a CHI Health child and adolescent psychiatrist.

One approach to treating depression is prescription medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These can help correct someone’s serotonin levels and thus lift the effects of depression. Lifestyle changes and therapy can also help.

Remember, depression is a disease and the way an adolescent acts is a symptom of this disease. Being sad and withdrawn is a symptom. Performing poorly at school is a symptom. If you suspect your child might be depressed, keep this framework in mind as you begin a conversation about how they’re feeling and what can be done to make things better.

Signs Your Teen Might Be Depressed

A Graphic of Depression