What to look for

The stereotype of the moody teenager, locked in their room with the music blaring, has been around forever. But while hormones, growth spurts and discovering new kinds of relationships are ‘normal’ parts of adolescence, feeling sad, irritable or anxious most of the time is not.

Because of all the changes young people go through, and the associated roller coaster of emotions, many parents and guardians find it hard to work out what a ‘normal’ reaction to difficult experiences looks like.

When is sadness ‘normal’ sadness? When should you begin to worry about the young person in your life? Thinking about your young person’s personality and what they’re experiencing as they develop into an adult can help you to better understand and support their emotional changes. 

 “His personality changed, he was angry and withdrawn, and he physically seemed to disappear inside his body, confused by simple instructions. He refused to talk to us as parents. We were unsure as to whether this was teenage hood and normal or something was wrong.” Paula, parent

Is this normal?

If you’re wondering about a young person and whether how they are feeling or reacting to a situation is ‘normal’, it can be helpful to take a step back, look at their overall situation and what they’re dealing with.

What is their stress or anxiety in response to? What are some of the ways that others might react to this situation? And how long have they been feeling this way?

‘Normal’ reactions to difficult experiences can continue for days or a couple of weeks depending upon the situation. Young people benefit from support in navigating these experiences regardless, but if you’re concerned at any point it might be worth thinking about what else might be going on. 

Sometimes a specific life event will trigger anxiety or depression, but that’s not always the case - sometimes there is no obvious cause or reason.

“Looking back at my son he was very moody before the diagnosis and we put this down to him being a teenager.” Janine, parent

What to look for

The main thing to look for in your young person is a sudden and ongoing change from the way they usually behave and feel.

Depression doesn’t just cause young people to feel sad or down, and anxiety doesn’t just make people worry. Young people can express anxiety and depression in many different ways. 

They may:

  • have trouble falling or staying asleep, or complain of restless, unsatisfying sleep
  • be tired, grumpy, irritable, tearful or upset most of the time
  • feel restless or on edge
  • lose interest in things they used to enjoy, and have trouble starting and completing assignments or work
  • be forgetful, lose concentration and be easily distracted
  • become withdrawn and lose friends
  • either refuse to eat or eat a lot, and either lose or gain weight quickly
  • have tense or sore muscles
  • complain of feeling physically awful, with unexplained aches and pains, and not want to go to school/work.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Have you noticed a change in their behaviour?
  • Is this behaviour occurring frequently?
  • Has this been going on for more than two weeks?
  • Are these changes affecting their day to day life (e.g. school, work, relationships)?

These quick questions can give you an indication of how worried you need to be. The more you answer ‘yes’, the more you need to consider discussing these changes with your young person and/or a health professional.