3 Tips to Tell the Difference Between Typical and Unhealthy Teen Behavior


It is sometimes difficult to distinguish normal adolescent mood shifts, reactions or rebellion from verifiable symptoms of depression as they often mimic each other.

Here are three quick ways to tell the difference:

1) Severity of symptoms. Temporary shifts in mood or state of mind that are fleeting and bounce back when circumstances or events change are likely typical of healthy development. Symptoms such as prolonged changes in mood (increased anger, sadness, irritability), changes in self care behaviors (sleeping or eating more or less than usual), using drugs or alcohol for self-soothing or distraction, or social isolation can be hallmarks of depression. Feelings such as intense loneliness and apathy, and thoughts such as hopelessness or worthlessness can also be signs of depression.  If the above symptoms are noticeable and prolonged, they are more likely depression than healthy development.

2) Duration of symptoms. Any notable deterioration in behavior or mood that lasts two weeks or longer without abatement may indicate depression. Crankiness or irritability for a day or two is more likely situational or hormonal. More prolonged and intractable mood shifts might indicate a mood disorder. Watching for longer duration without relief is key to being on the lookout for depression.

3) Areas of Functioning. Healthy teens struggle with transitions, change and expectations in several areas of life, such as school, work, performance, family and friends. A problem in one area, such as with a friend, isn’t likely to indicate a more serious mood issue. Problems noticed in several areas of a teen’s functioning—at home, in school, and in interactions with friends—may indicate a mood disorder, rather than a bad mood. Take note of patterns of negative thinking and behavior across several areas of functioning to determine if depression is present.

Determining whether a teen is struggling with “typical teen stuff” vs. unhealthy thinking or mood is one of the trickiest parts of parenting a teen. When in doubt, consult a mental health professional for education and advice about your teen’s functioning.