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Sadness or Depression? Recognizing Mental Illness in Tweens and Teens


Kids carry around a ton of emotion.

As infants, they communicate with cries, screams, and eventually smiles and laughter.

Toddlers grow and begin to use spoken language in addition to laughter, hugs, biting, hitting, and crying.

The childhood years are generally calm. A second grader has not yet entered the emotional turmoil of the teen or preteen years, and has increased social skills that they didn’t have as a toddler or even as a preschool child.

Once a boy or girl hits the preteen years, the hormonal changes that will eventually take them into adulthood begin.

If you’ve ever talked with a group of parents about their own adolescent years, you’ll hear words like “chaotic” and “angry,” “depressed,” “anxious”.

Teens and tweens are full of incredibly strong and complex emotions. Their moods change and shift. They can be explosive and angry one minute, and the next minute write you a sweet note about how much they love you.

As a parent, grandparent, teacher or friend, how can you differentiate between the mood swings of an emotionally healthy adolescent and a teen who may be struggling with a more serious mental illness such as depression?

Even with adults it can be difficult to tell the difference between feeling blue and having depression. With teens it’s harder.

As a parent, you know your child best. If something feels off with your child, talk with them further or seek professional help. If you’re a caring adult in a teen’s life and notice something that is concerning, don’t hesitate to reach out to the teen or their parents.

One thing I hear time and time again from adults who were depressed as teens is that they wish their parents had understood and gotten them help. Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help if you see some of these signs.

  • Engaging in self-injury. Any type of self-harm is cause for concern. Some teens cut or burn, others will pierce or scratch themselves. While it may or may not be a deliberate call for help, it’s a sign that something is wrong and should not be ignored.
  • Withdrawing more than usual. This is tricky because part of being a teenager is withdrawing from the family unit. And while adults with depression tend to withdraw from everyone, teens who are depressed will often keep a few close friends around, or they will change groups of friends.
  • Major change in school performance. If your previously A or B student begins failing tests, it’s time to look closely at what is going on. Depression can cause kids to not care about school or grades anymore, or it can interfere with their concentration in the classroom and cause grades to plummet.
  • Drastic change in eating and/or sleeping habits. Is your teen suddenly refusing meals or eating an excessive amount? Is he or she sleeping for most of the day? Spending days in bed is a huge red flag for depression or a physical illness, and should be evaluated by a physician. Huge changes in eating habits can be a sign of depression or an eating disorder.
  • Increased agitation. Tweens and teens don’t always manifest their depression in the same ways as adults. Instead of being mopey or sad, depression can show itself as grumpiness, moodiness, or agitation. A depressed teen may have explosive outbursts that seem uncharacteristic.
  • Saying that they feel hopeless or depressed. Some tweens or teens come right out and say that they’re depressed or even suicidal. Get them help, even if you’re not sure they need it. Having a nonjudgmental adult to talk freely to is never a bad thing, and could be life-saving.
  • Drug or alcohol use. Teens, like adults, sometimes seek out drugs or alcohol to improve their mood, and this can be an indication of depression or anxiety.

As smart as they seem, tweens and teens often don’t have the courage or the words to ask for the help that they need.

The stigma of mental illness has decreased during the past 20 years or so, but it can still be something your adolescent feels embarrassed about. They may not know the signs of mental illness or be able to see it within themselves, so it’s up to the adults in their lives to recognize it and find them the help they need.


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Sadness or Depression? Recognizing Mental Illness in Tweens and Teens

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2014). Sadness or Depression? Recognizing Mental Illness in Tweens and Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Oct 2014
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