How To Know If Your Teen Has Anxiety Or Depression

teen angst

Our number one goal as parents is to raise happy and mentally healthy kids; but this can be harder than we might expect, especially when it comes to helping our kids avoid anxiety or depression. In our achievement-oriented society teens feel a lot of pressure to be what others expect them to be, that can create quite a bit of teen angst. On top of that, there is additional pressure (fueled by social media) to look happy and successful. This creates a lot of stress and has led to higher levels of anxiety and depression in teens than ever before.

Our kids are aware of this trend and so are we as parents. Watching our kids struggling emotionally, heartbreaking and downright scary. Thankfully there are many wonderful specialists and programs for you to turn to, whether your teen is dealing with normal teen angst, anxiety or depression.

In order to properly help your kid though, it is important to know if your teen has anxiety or depression (or even both). This can be tricky because there are ways in which they look very similar, sometimes making it difficult to pinpoint the problem. But, knowing the similarities and differences can give you a head start.


How Anxiety and Depression Are Similar 

Both anxiety and depression can cause a teen to withdraw – from family, friends, activities, etc. Withdrawing is a coping mechanism that allows a teen to avoid the pain and discomfort of anxiety provoking interactions and activities. It is also provides temporary relief from the added pain a teen feels when they work to seem “normal” while also feeling depressed.

Anxiety and depression can feed off each other. A teen can become depressed because they feel so unhappy about the anxiety they are experiencing. Conversely, a depressed teen can become anxious about having to come off as being “fine” when they feel like they may cry at any moment. Kids can become terribly anxious about the possibility of embarrassing themselves in this way.

Both anxiety and depression can manifest some of the same symptoms.

  • Repetitive, self-critical thoughts
  • Social avoidance
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Not being able to sit still
  • Angry outbursts

Not only can the symptoms look the same, but the medications used to treat those symptoms can also be the same.


How Anxiety and How Anxiety and Depression are Different 

Though there are several things that make anxiety and depression look similar, there are also ways in which they look and feel very, very different.

Anxiety can look like many things; but, what it boils down to, is mainly a concern and worry that tends to be active and engaged.

Depression can look like many things too; but fundamentally it encompasses a sense of hopelessness, detachment, and giving up.

Anxiety tends to be more activating; whereas, depression tends to be more passive. Anxiety lacks confidence. Depression lacks joy.


Is this Normal Teen Anxiety or Does My Kid Need Help? 

If it looks like your teen is suffering from anxiety, you will want to determine whether it is a healthy level or has slipped into an anxiety or mood disorder, or amplified teen angst.

Mood swings can be confusing to us as parents. We often hear people talk about their emotional teens, but it is important not to dismiss their mood swings entirely. Pay attention to how their mood is impacting your teens life. When moods disrupt their ability to carry on the responsibilities and priorities of life, deeper mental health concern could be at play. Here’s more information on how to tell how serious your kid’s mood swings might be.


How to Intervene and Help with Anxiety or Depression 

Knowing that your kid is suffering with anxiety and/or depression is hard to take as a parent. You may want to push for a solution that will bring immediate relief to your kid (and you). But, it is important to be patient and focus your attention on learning as much as you can in order to make a treatment plan that is effective and sustainable.  Here’s a few things you can do to get started.

  1. Understand what is normal teen angst and what could be something more serious.
  2. Aim to differentiate between anxiety and depression. Observe your teen for a few days and take note of their behavior, (what they are saying or doing) and how they are showing up energetically (active/agitated or passive/disengaged). Compare your observations against the descriptions of anxiety and depression in the resource links at the end of this article. Which set of behaviors is most similar to your teen’s? What is your sense of how they are feeling? If you are still aren’t sure, solicit an outside opinion.
  3. Research options for support and treatment (therapists, doctors, support groups, treatment programs).
  4. Talk to the experts. Reading about treatment for anxiety and depression can be informative, but nothing beats a conversation with a live person in terms of comfort and clarity. Your questions can be answered directly and in real time.
  5. Schedule an assessment. Make an appointment with a specialist or a treatment facility to have your kid examined and assessed.

Even before you have acquired treatment for your kid, it is important for you to stay connected to them and make them feel safe and loved. Learn how to talk to your teen with empathy.  Do what you can to create an environment of calm in your home, with structure and emotional support for your teen.

Finally, and most importantly, take care of yourself. If you are feeling overwhelm, anxiety or depression yourself, prioritize getting the support you need. Carve time to rest and replenish, so that you can be more available to your teen.


Want to find out how anxiety affects you or your teen? Take my survey.


Further Information and Resources

  1. Anxiety has overtaken depression in college students
  2. Pew Study (2019) that teens view anxiety and depression as major problem among peers (920 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17)
  3. Symptoms of Anxiety that may not be obvious.
  4. Symptoms of Depression in teens.
  5. When to be worried about a mood disorder
  6. The difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder
  7. Healthy vs unhealthy anxiety
  8. What to say to others struggling with Depression
  9. How to support teens struggling with Anxiety


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD