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Is your teen depressed or an introvert?

What some parents might interpret as gloomy behavior, others might recognize as an alternative approach to comfort and contentment. Introversion is a personality trait that is best defined as a preference for fewer social engagements, smaller friend groups, and more time spent alone. 

Introverts aren’t necessarily obsessed with solitude, and they need the warmth of another human being in their life as much as anyone else. But they cherish their emotional comfort zone and are certainly less outgoing than their extroverted counterparts. 

An introverted teen is not any less capable of social interaction on a one-on-one level. Neither are they automatically struggling with dark, depressing thoughts, or horrid anxiety. However, introversion can correlate with both depression and anxiety, and some researchers believe this may tie into how introverted thinking and behavior often lead to more self-critical thought. 

But it can be a slippery slope, especially when parents and teachers begin to suspect and label introverted behavior as a sign of depression, or another mental health issue. Learning to differentiate between the two is important. 

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at a common question – Is my teen depressed or an introvert?

Is Your Teen Depressed or an Introvert?

There’s no one to blame in this. Some people are inclined to feel better when they have a place to withdraw to and can minimize their interactions with others. On the other hand, it’s natural for parents to worry that such behavior can have a long-term impact on a teen’s mental wellbeing, their relationships with others, and their communicative skills. 

There are a lot of parallels to draw between introversion and depression, especially in the eyes of more extroverted people. Seeing someone deliberately going out of their way to avoid going out with friends, meeting new people, or having fun at parties and get-togethers doesn’t seem healthy. 

But introverted preferences are hereditary and might even be explained physiologically through differences in inherent dopamine levels

So, how can a parent or friend recognize and differentiate depression from an inherent desire to spend less time around other people? 

Depression has many other markers and signs that point towards it and differentiate it from normal introverted behavior. Looking for these markers can help you better understand if your teen is truly okay, or if they’re trying to hide their worries. 

So, is your teen depressed or an introvert?

What is Clinical Depression?

Being diagnosed with depression and feeling depressed are two separate things. Psychiatry makes a point of clearly differentiating between feeling sad – a normal and important emotion – and depression, which is characterized by abnormally long bouts of sadness, anhedonia (inability to feel joy), hopelessness, and low self-worth (even when others around you provide love and affirmation). 

Clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is the most commonly diagnosed mood disorder in the US and can also be considered the “main” type of depression. But depression can come in many different forms, including seasonal depression (or the winter blues), PMDD, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder. 

The main characteristics of a depressive disorder are fatigue and inescapable sadness. It may be episodic, or it can ever-present, with different waves of intensity. For some people, it can last a few months, with severe thoughts of self-hatred and suicidal ideation. For others, it’s like a constant hum over years. 

Wanting to be alone can be a sign of depression, but extroverts can be depressed too. While looking for signs and symptoms is important, and recognizing them is crucial, we should take a moment to remember that there is no clear-cut definition of what a depressed person should look like. The disorder can manifest itself in different ways, and symptoms can be masked or exacerbated by other, related conditions, from severe anxiety to substance use. 

Recognizing Depression in Your Teen

The signs and symptoms of a depressive disorder depend on a teen’s environment, personality, and other potential mental health issues. The most common signs can include: 

  • Irregular and unhealthy sleeping habits (sleeping in too much, as well as insomnia). 
  • Being visibly sad over weeks with no improvement in mood. 
  • Indescribable fatigue, even simple tasks seem impossible (getting out of bed, showering). 
  • Frequently discussing or bringing up topics of death and suicide. 
  • Joking or making serious statements about one’s own uselessness. 
  • Talking about not being missed. 
  • Being unresponsive to shows of affection or affirmation. 
  • Slower decision-making, struggling to pay attention at school. 
  • Irritability and frustration, particularly towards oneself. 
  • Signs of self-harm (cutting, burning, biting, hair-tearing, etc.)
  • Isolating frequently. 
  • Avoiding old hobbies and friends. 
  • Constantly seeming “drained”. 
  • And more. 

Teens may be more prone to both introversion and depression following months of isolation during the pandemic. 

What Does It Mean to Be Introverted?

While we can link introversion and depression, there’s no reason to believe that one causes the other. The correlation may be a bit more complicated than that. 

Introversion is linked to depression, with potential factors including a genetic predisposition towards mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as a greater incidence of self-criticism among introverted individuals. 

However, combatting and treating depression does not mean trying to change your personality. An introverted teen will not become extroverted as a result of their treatment, and treatment for depression is not “treatment for introversion”. 

Is Introversion Normal?

Introversion is common. It is not a black-and-white state, meaning a person can have (and usually does have) both introverted and extroverted qualities. Most people share somewhat of an affinity for both, while generally leaning more towards introverted or extroverted thoughts and behavior. 

Teens who were previously extroverted may become more introverted as a result of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, they may become somewhat more extroverted after a successful recovery from depression and anxiety, although not at the same level as before. However, a teen who was introverted to begin with is unlikely to become more extroverted after recovering from a bout with depression. 

It’s not necessarily a negative thing to be introverted. While rates of anxiety and depression are higher in teens with introverted personality traits, their introversion also grants them greater self-awareness and sensitivity. 

Furthermore, we don’t have any robust evidence to suggest that low extroversion and neuroticism (the tendency to focus on the negative) compound the risk of developing mental health issues. What this means is that neuroticism may be a greater predictive factor for depression and anxiety than low or high extroversion. And teen neuroticism can be reduced during treatment, via therapeutic methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.