Depression During Puberty

Why Am I in Such a Bad Mood?

Depression During Puberty

Do you ever find yourself getting really irritable for almost no reason? Or suddenly feeling down without knowing why? Going from sadness to anger to joy in a matter of minutes can make many teens feel as though they're losing their grip. But why is the feeling of being on an emotional roller coaster so common among teens?

Dealing with constant change and pressure is part of the answer. Maybe you're starting a new school and not able to see old friends as much. Getting good grades or wanting to be better in sports or other activities can be a concern for many teens. It might feel as though there just isn't enough time to do everything.

Being a teen means struggling with identity and self-image. Being accepted by friends feels extremely important. Teens also may notice, for the first time, a sense of distance from parents and family. You may feel you want to be on your own and make your own decisions, but it can also seem overwhelming and even a bit lonely at times.

As fun and exciting as this time is, it also can be a time of confusion and conflict. It can take a while for teens — and their families — to feel comfortable with the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Another important cause for mood swings is biology. When puberty begins, the body starts producing sex hormones. These hormones — estrogen and progesterone in girls and testosterone in guys — cause physical changes in the body. But in some people, they also seem to cause emotional changes — the ups and downs that sometimes feel control.

Understanding that almost everyone goes through mood swings during their teen years might make them easier to handle.

When It's More Than Just a Mood

Feeling irritable or short-tempered can be signs of depression. So can feelings of boredom or hopelessness.

Many people think of depression as feeling sad, but depression also can bring feelings of moodiness, impatience, anger, or even just not caring.

When depression gets in the way of enjoying life or dealing with others, that's a sign you need to do something about it,  talking to a counselor or therapist who can help you deal with it.

Also, if you ever feel hurting yourself, that's more than just a bad mood and you need to tell someone.

Taking Control

Here are some things you can do that might make those bad moods a bit easier to handle:

  • Recognize you're not alone. Although not every teen experiences mood changes to the same degree, they are common.
  • Catch your breath. Or count to 10. Or do something that lets you settle down for a few moments, especially if you're feeling angry or irritable. Try to look at the situation from the point of view of a wise observer.
  • Talk to people you trust. Friends can help each other by realizing that they're not alone in their feelings. Talking to parents is important, too. Parents can share their own experiences dealing with bad moods. Plus, they'll appreciate it if you try to explain how you feel instead of just slamming a door. Teachers and counselors are often good resources, and a doctor can help sort through questions about development. Keeping feelings inside can make them seem much worse.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise produces more beta-endorphin, a hormone that controls stress and improves mood. Go for a run, play some tennis, ride your bike, or punch a punching bag.
  • Get enoughsleep. Though it can be hard to find enough time, getting adequate rest is very important. Being tired can lead to more sadness and irritability.
  • Create. Get involved in some sort of project, starting a journal or diary, building something wood, or starting an art or music piece. Writing can help you organize and express your thoughts and feelings and will make things more manageable. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation; the important thing is just to get your thoughts on paper. Do the same thing with paint, sculpture, music, or other art forms. Put your feelings into your artwork.
  • Cry. There's nothing wrong with crying; in fact, it often makes a person feel better. However, if you find that you are sad, irritable, bored, or hopeless much of the time, or if you just can't seem to shake the blues, you might be depressed and need help from a counselor or doctor. If you're feeling stressed or angry a lot of the time, getting help could be very useful for you.
  • Wait. Just as you can get into a bad mood for what seems no reason at times, that mood can also pass. If your negative mood sticks around too long, though — or if it's interfering with the way you deal with friends, parents, school, or activities — then you may want to talk to a school counselor, parent, or therapist about what you can do to feel better.


The risks of earlier puberty

Depression During Puberty

Shape-shifting bodies. Cracking voices. Hairs sprouting in new places. Puberty is an inherently awkward transition, and it's not all physical.

«As children develop physically, it changes how they think about themselves and how people relate to them socially,» says Jane Mendle, PhD, a psychologist at Cornell University.

For young people who begin puberty earlier than their peers, the transformation appears to be particularly fraught — especially for girls.

Early-maturing girls are at increased risk of a range of psychosocial problems including depression, substance use and early sexual behavior, as University of Florida psychologist Julia Graber, PhD, described in a recent review (Hormones and Behavior, 2013).

The picture for early-developing boys isn't as clear, but evidence suggests that they, too, might suffer ill effects from maturing ahead of their peers.

That's worrisome, especially because the average age of puberty seems to be trending younger for children worldwide. The average age of a girl's first period in the United States and Europe was about 16 a century ago.

Today, it's closer to 13, as Susan Euling, PhD, and colleagues described in a 2008 paper (Pediatrics, 2008). Far fewer studies have explored pubertal timing in boys, in part because there isn't a clear objective marker of puberty in boys comparable to a girl's first period.

Still, some studies have suggested that boys, too, might be developing earlier than generations past.

Understanding the risks associated with early maturation is complicated. After all, early puberty isn't a single event — it's a process that can last four years or more. «The things happening in the first year may be very different than those in the last year,» says Mendle.

Despite the complexity, however, psychologists are beginning to understand the social and environmental factors that make early puberty a risky proposition.

Fitting in

Puberty is a process launched when the pituitary gland releases hormones that signal the body to amp up production of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone (in girls) or testosterone (in boys), triggering the development of secondary sexual characteristics.

In girls, puberty typically begins with breast development between ages 8 and 13 and ends with menarche, or the first period.

In boys, puberty begins between ages 9 and 14, on average, starting with growth of the sexual organs and wrapping up with facial hair and a deepened voice.

«Precocious puberty» occurs when puberty begins at earlier ages — yet the mental health risks associated with early puberty aren't exclusive to kids experiencing puberty before their eighth birthday. Rather, mental health problems are more ly to crop up when a child is developing normally, but is among the first in his or her peer group to begin the process.

Most pre-adolescents want nothing more than to fit in, Mendle points out. «It's a time when you don't want to be distinguished from your peers in any way, shape or form.» So when a child develops earlier than his or her peers, there can be long-lasting effects on mental health, several studies show.

In one recent example, Karen Rudolph, PhD, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues, followed more than 160 boys and girls for three years. They found that girls who matured earlier than their peers had increased rates of depression that persisted over the course of the study.

They also found that while early-maturing boys initially had lower levels of depression than later-maturing boys, over time they showed signs of increased anxiety, negative self-image and interpersonal stress.

By the end of the three-year study period, the boys' rates of depression were almost as high as those of the early-maturing girls (Development and Psychopathology, 2014).

Other research suggests early puberty is particularly hard on girls.

In boys, early maturation has been linked to both internalizing symptoms (such as anxiety) and externalizing symptoms (such as tobacco use), rather than to full-fledged disorders. Not so for girls.

Among adolescent girls, early puberty is associated with more depressive disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders and disruptive behavior disorders.

Of those disorders, «the clearest and most consistent link is between early puberty and depression in girls,» Graber says. And for many women, puberty seems to be a key period in the development of depression.

«In childhood, boys and girls have roughly the same rates of depression, but adult women are two to three times more ly to be depressed as men,» Mendle says. «That discrepancy doesn't exist at the beginning of puberty, but it is entrenched by the middle of puberty.»

Social pressures

What is it that makes maturing earlier so challenging? When kids develop early, the way they act and think doesn't always match the way they look. Other kids and adults might make erroneous assumptions about what they are capable of.

«These kids have levels of cognitive, social and emotional development completely consistent with their age, but physically, they look older,» says Mendle. «That mismatch is thought to be at the heart of the difficulties.»

Cultural connotations might make puberty particularly hard for girls. Being sexually mature brings specific challenges for young women, Mendle says. «In particular, there are changes in thinking of yourself as sexually desirable or physically attractive that get emphasized for girls at puberty.»

When girls mature early, they seem to have several disadvantages right away, Rudolph says. They compare themselves more negatively to their peers. They're more anxious and less confident in their relationships with family and friends.

And they are more ly to hang out with friends — often, older pals — who engage in risky behaviors such as early sexual behavior and substance use. Such peer influence seems to be a major risk factor for mental health problems among early-maturing kids, says Rona Carter, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Michigan.

«If you're hanging around peers [who are] engaging in risky behaviors, you're more ly to engage in the same kinds of behaviors,» she says.

Parents, too, have influence. For example, Carter says, if children look physically older, «parents might grant them more freedom than perhaps their chronological age would suggest.»

Parents of preteens should hardly panic, however. While kids who mature early are at an increased risk of mental health problems, the odds are still in their favor. «Even among early maturers, the vast majority will get through puberty fine,» says Graber.

Early puberty, early stress

The key question for researchers, then, is to understand which factors cause some kids to experience negative mental health effects associated with early puberty — and which factors might protect them.

But that question is complicated because many of the social factors that can prompt mental health problems have themselves been linked to the early onset of puberty — namely early life stress, absence of fathers in the home, high family conflict and lower socioeconomic status.

Though the reasons for this link aren't clear, scientists have hypothesized that an unstable environment could signal the body to become sexually mature at earlier ages. «The kids who go through early puberty aren't random,» notes Mendle.

Some research suggests that early puberty might compound the problems associated with early adversity to boost the risk of depression and other mental health problems even higher. «These risk factors may be additive,» Graber says.

She has found, for example, that family factors and early maturation seem to interact to increase the risk of early substance use (Developmental Psychology, 2010). But family factors alone did not fully account for the effects of early maturation on substance use, she notes.

«It may be part of the equation, but it's not the only factor.»

On the other hand, some research suggests that early puberty might be a less significant risk factor for some kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Mendle and colleagues recently studied siblings and twins to explore the interplay between genetics, pubertal timing and environmental factors.

They found that girls who were genetically predisposed to early puberty were more ly to experience depressive symptoms, but the pattern only held up among girls from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Yet overall, children from lower socioeconomic communities had higher rates of depression (Clinical Psychological Science, 2015).

To explain that pattern, Mendle suggests that girls from these disadvantaged communities have had to navigate a series of risk factors well before puberty, and might have already developed a maladaptive response to stress. For kids from more resource-rich backgrounds, early puberty might be their first brush with emotional difficulty.

Meanwhile, scientists are just beginning to unravel the roles of race and culture.

African-American girls tend to go through puberty earlier than girls of European descent, with the average for Hispanic girls falling somewhere in between, and Asian-Americans developing last, on average.

But although African-American girls are typically among the first to develop, says Carter, there's evidence that they are less ly to experience the negative effects of early puberty than their European-American peers.

Though researchers don't fully understand the reasons for that difference, Carter suggests it might be related to the social and cultural expectations applied to young women in different communities. «I think it has something to do with the context in which [pubertal] changes are taking place,» she says. «How are girls accommodating to those changes?»

Starting earlier, lasting longer

While researchers are making progress in understanding the effects of early maturation, there's a hitch: «Early puberty» is difficult to define. The average age of pubertal onset appears to be inching earlier, particularly for girls.

Some of the reason for that change may be positive, says Kate Keenan, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. Improved nutrition, for instance, has been associated with earlier maturation. On the other hand, negative causes such as increased stress and obesity have also been linked to early puberty.

Researchers are also exploring whether endocrine-disrupting chemicals — such as bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking compound once found widely in plastics — might be a factor in initiating puberty. But without knowing what factors are driving the trend, Keenan says, it's hard to know how worried to be.

Since the risks seem to stem from developing early relative to peers, the shift toward earlier average puberty may not translate to an increase in the number of kids experiencing psychological and emotional problems. On the other hand, the earlier kids go through puberty, the less ly they are to have developed strong coping skills.

«Even if there's a collective mass of kids going through puberty at 8 or 9, I'm still worried about what that means psychologically,» Mendle says.

There's been relatively little work done on the duration, or «tempo,» of early puberty, but that, too, seems to be important, Keenan says. Her research indicates that depression is associated with both age of onset of puberty and the tempo of the transition (Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2014).

While researchers have a lot to learn about early puberty, their findings already suggest hints for helping kids navigate the path toward adolescence. Children who learn better coping skills may be buffered from some of the negative effects of maturing young.

Lisa Sontag Padilla, PhD, of the RAND Corp.

, and colleagues found that among girls who matured early, those who had lower executive functioning and those who experienced more reactivity to the stress hormone cortisol were more ly to experience maladjustment (Developmental Psychopathology, 2012).

Rudolph, too, has found that kids with pre-existing emotional problems, poor coping mechanisms and family stressors have a particularly difficult time negotiating early puberty.

«During adolescence, those kids who are more able to respond adaptively to stressors, who engage in planful efforts to deal with problems or regulate emotions, seem to be protected from effects of early puberty on depression,» she says. «We need to bolster kids' coping resources.»

So far, there aren't many interventions designed specifically to help ferry kids through the choppy waters of pubertal development. But perhaps, says Mendle, there should be. «There's a case to be made that we should pay more attention to the psychological vulnerability of this stage of life.»


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