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Is it typical teen moodiness or depression? Dr. Ashley Miller shares tips

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Picture this: your son or daughter walks in the door after the school day. You ask them the usual questions such as how they are, how their day went, do they have any homework…and in response, they roll their eyes and go straight to their room.

As a parent of an average teenager, this sort of behaviour could be expected, but when should you be concerned about something more serious going on? Dr. Ashley Miller, psychiatrist with BC Children's Hospital, shares information and tips on how to identify a teen who is just moody, or when it might be depression.

"In the example of your child coming home from school and acting moody or irritated, it's important to observe what else is going on in their lives," said Dr. Miller. "If your child is sometimes moody, but enjoys being with their friends, is doing well in school and is otherwise healthy, it is unlikely that it's depression."

Normal pre-teens and teens can have big feelings such as anger, sadness or anxiety that seem overblown to adults. Typically, this is a response a teen is having to an event or trigger, and will not last long. When working with a teen who is moody or irritable, Dr. Miller recommends that parents, caregivers and educators can try to put themselves in the teen's shoes, acknowledge and understand their experience, and listen in a non-judgemental way. 

So when could it be depression? Dr. Miller explains that if the moodiness or behaviours are getting more intense, are happening most of the day, for at least two weeks in a row, then it might be depression. Here are some examples of what parents can watch for if they are worried about depression in their teen:

  • Their mood is continuously sad or irritable, and not just with parents, but even with friends
  • They show no pleasure with friendships or activities enjoyed in the past, such as sports or hobbies
  • One of the two above happens most of the day for at least two weeks in a row
  • There have other physical and emotional symptoms such as sleep problems, appetite changes, worthlessness, or feelings of guilt
  • There is a change in day to day functioning  such as school problems, isolating socially or new drug or alcohol use
  • They are experiencing feelings of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or are engaging in self-harm

When parents believe their teen may have depression and are unsure of how to help, Dr.  Miller recommends parents first focus on the basic connection to open the door for their child to share their feelings.

"It's important to work on basics of the relationship.  This is true for parents or teachers.  It's very hard to ask for intimate details without the basics," said Dr. Miller. "Listening non-judgmentally and without an agenda is incredibly helpful.  Car rides, walks, talking over meals; these are all ways to strengthen that connection and help your teen open up." 

As parents, the immediate reaction is to find a solution to help their teen. And while there may be resistance or it will seem like the youth does not want help, parents need to remember that their children do want their support. A main barrier for a teen sharing feelings or issues with their parent or another trusted adult is for fear of judgement, not being understood or exposing just how serious a problem is. In short, a teen can feel uncomfortable to share. Dr. Miller says it's important to take what your teen or student is saying seriously and try to meet them where they're at.

"In order to meet a youth where they're at, it's really helpful to understand what it's like to some degree.  It's hard to take that perspective, but we have to if we're really going to help," said Dr. Miller. "Thinking and talking about depression can be, well, depressing.  While I'm not saying you need to stay in the dark with your loved one indefinitely, it's much easier to help them come out the other side when they don't feel alone anymore."         

Dr. Miller also recommends that parents seek help and advice from their family doctor or pediatrician to find the appropriate treatment and resources if they believe their teen is struggling with depression. Even if parents don't know the full extent of their teen's symptoms, but are concerned, it's important to take the lead in setting up an appointment.  If a teen refuses to go, parents and caregivers can go and get more advice.  Parents and teachers can also connect with the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre for more advice on helping a child or teen who is struggling.

And while Dr. Miller urges parents to be there for their youth as best they can, a part of that is taking care of their own wellbeing. She recommends parents try to widen their network of support and share with a family member or loved one.

"Being a parent can be a tough job, and it can be even more difficult when you are supporting a loved one struggling with a mental health issue," said Dr. Miller. "I recommend that parents are kind to themselves, that they remind themselves that it's OK to not be perfect and they are doing the best that they can."

Dr. Ashley Miller presented on this topic at a recent Pinwheel Education Series provided by the BC Children's Hospital Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. If you're interested in learning more about this topic, you can listen to Dr. Miller's presentation here.


anxiety; BC Children's Hospital; Kids; mental health; Substance use
Children's Health
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