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A Psychologist’s Warning to Parents About Teen Suicide

A Psychologist's Warning to Parents About Teen Suicide

A Scary Reality

17-18% of teenagers have contemplated suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Females are twice as likely to seriously think about it, but males are more likely to actually commit suicide. Those stats are beyond scary to a parent of a teenager or a budding teenager.

What if my child becomes one of those numbers? What can I do to prevent this? Can I just put my child in a bubble until he/she is 18 years of age? As a licensed psychologist, these are the questions I hear parents of teens ask me daily. It is in the media nonstop: a teenager attempted suicide or killed him/herself. 13 Reasons Why is still one of the most popular series among preteens. We have our children coming home and talking about a friend who was hospitalized for attempting suicide or worse yet, parents who found their child hanging in his bedroom. It is beyond scary. At times, it feels paralyzing scary.

Reading the Signs

So, what can we do as parents, advocates, or someone who loves a teenager? The key is understanding this difficult trend. Educate yourself and work to educate others. Know the most common risk factors:
• Your child feels like he/she has no purpose in life
• Your child is anxious, irritable, moody (chronically)
• Your child is not sleeping well or getting up in the night
• Substance abuse (marijuana, alcohol, ketamine, etc.)
• Your child feels hopeless
• Your child has withdrawn from his/her friends or suddenly changed friend groups to a group that you are not fond of
• Anger/acting out
• Acting reckless
• Sudden mood changes
• Past suicide attempts
• A triggering event—a situation that led to humiliation, shame, or despair (i.e. a breakup, someone posting something about him/her on social media, or their “nude” being sent around school)
• Access to firearms or prescription medication

The reality is, if your child is very depressed and lethargic, I am less worried than if your child is anxious or perfectionistic or the mood is slightly improving and the child has more energy. Why? Because a very apathetic child does not have the energy to do it. A child who is more energetic or anxious/impulsive runs a greater risk because that child has the energy and motivation to attempt suicide. We know that 1 in 10 suicides are by people who were seen in the ER within two months of dying.

I have parents asking me what has increased the suicidal trend. The truth is, overall, suicide rates are down from the 1990s, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 29% of teenagers contemplated suicide in 1991. What is happening is that finally the media and government are shedding an honest light on this scary epidemic. Most notable for this trend is that teenagers are showing less and less ability to cope with stress or feeling overwhelmed in our modern day. They shut down and become paralyzed. Their catastrophic thinking (meaning, assuming the worst possible scenario) is their “jump to” reaction.

Make Your Child Feel Heard

We owe it to our children to teach them to cope with difficult feelings and situations. Teach your child that nothing is “unfixable.” Give them grace. Discuss with your children that you are willing to help them solve any problem and want them to talk with you. Make yourself, as their parent, accessible. Most of my teenage patients are in therapy to have a neutral, safe place to talk. A place where they feel unjudged and can be themselves. It is so important to have an open-door policy. Also, children don’t share at the most opportune times. They tend to want to open up late at night, when everyone is tired, or when they are riding in the car alone with you, or when you are distracted and needing to get a million chores done. Whatever you are doing, stop and listen. Your task can wait; you will catch up on sleep. Your child is most important and needs you in that moment. It could be life or death.

In a culture where children are starting to express their sexual orientation at a younger age, they need parents who are willing to listen and not judge. Did you know a child who is questioning their sexual orientation has a significantly higher chance of attempting or committing suicide? Some stats say that it is up to 3 times more likely to attempt, with the majority of research saying twice as high. This is scary. We need to be open to our children and listen to them, even if you do not agree. Give your child a judgment-free place to be real with you so that they are safe. Let me ask you this: would you rather have your child dead because he didn’t want to tell you he is gay or have him alive and maybe have a sexual orientation you don’t agree with? If you can’t be the one your child can open up to, find a therapist or a close nonjudgmental family friend and allow your child to have that safe place. If I haven’t stressed it enough yet, the number one goal in this situation is to keep your child safe.

Lastly, it is important to help your child learn that no problem is the end of the world. Model how you deal with anxiety and stressors. When money is tight, let them know and teach them how you are dealing with it so that it does not paralyze you. When you made a mistake at work, teach them how you worked it out so you didn’t lose your job. When you get in an argument with a spouse, explain that you are not getting along, but you are talking it out. Teaching by example is huge, especially with teenagers. They may treat you like you are the dumbest person walking the planet, but just like when they were a toddler and it was cute to be emulating your mannerisms, now they are watching and modeling your coping mechanisms and morals.

It takes a lot of grit to survive the teen years, especially with the intense fear of your child being suicidal. The key is to know the risk factors, be intimately and positively involved in your child’s life, and make sure your child knows he or she is loved and needed no matter what.

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Dr. Christina is a licensed psychologist in a private practice who mostly specializes in children's issues as well as family law. She’s a Midwestern native, wife, and mom of two living in Florida who travels north often to enjoy the beauty of the seasons.

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