How low is too low for a teenagers mood?

Dr Kirsten Wooff, Clinical Psychologist and Director at Resilience Clinical Psychology, explains when you need to worry about your teen’s mood — and when their moodiness is just typical teenage behaviour.

Parents often ask me, “Is my teenager just being moody, or is there something more serious happening?” Teenagers I work with also doubt their ability to differentiate between feeling really low and “being dramatic”. Stereotypically, teenagers are well-known for their moodiness and tendency to keep their feelings private.

So how low is too low for a teenager’s mood? Here are some signs for young people and their parents to look out for:

1. Intensity and duration

The longer and more intense a low or irritable mood lasts for and the less responsive a young person’s mood is to positive events, the more likely it is depression. If a young person presents as miserable or withdrawn for most days, all day and across several situations for more than two weeks, there is probably a need to seek professional help.

2. Impact on daily living

When a young person starts to struggle in areas of their life such as schoolwork, peer friendships, family life, and leisure activities, it is likely that their mood is impacting on them significantly. This may look like:

  • Withdrawal and school refusal: A teenager may withdraw from social activities and refuse to go to school more than a few times.
  • Lack of enjoyment and connection:  You may notice that they don’t enjoy their leisure activities like they used to. You may notice that they don’t laugh or smile like before and their “spark” has gone, especially when doing hobbies that they used to love.
  • Fatigue and lack of energy: A teenager may struggle to get out of bed, struggle to get through the day, and not feel refreshed no matter how much sleep they get.
  • Pessimistic views: You may hear an increase in negative views the young person has of themselves, others, or their school/community – e.g. “no one likes me”, “there’s no point”, “I can’t do anything right”. Some young people with depression may not be able to make up their mind about anything.

3. Conflict

Although some parent-child conflict in adolescence is normal, verbal or physical aggression is not, and can be a sign that the young person is struggling with their emotions.

4. Unhealthy attempts at coping

Another sign that a young person may need a space to talk to someone independent is if you notice an increase in risky behaviour such as trying to cope through drug or alcohol use or through self-injury.

5. Suicidal thoughts

If a young person verbalises that they wish to end their life or, if in regard to the point above, you see signs of unhealthy attempts at coping, it is important that they are formally assessed by a professional. *

Teenagers often don’t want to (or know how to) talk to their parents, and sometimes the best they can give is a shrug. Parents who have come to see me who weren’t sure how serious their child’s mood difficulties were have found a professional opinion reassuring, or found it helpful to have guidance on how to best support their child. If your child displays some of these signs, they could benefit from having an independent space to talk and to find some strategies to help them cope with their current difficulties and enhance their future resilience. Research suggests that early intervention has a better prognosis for treatment.

*If a young person’s safety is imminently at risk, take them to the nearest Emergency Department or call the Crisis Mental Health Team through your local District Health Board.

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