The thought of teenage suicide sends shivers down the spine of any parent. Teenagers can be moody and impulsive, which makes them difficult to understand and reach sometimes. So how do you know if your teen is at risk for suicide?
“Suicidal thoughts and behaviors affect kids of all social groups,” says Jeffrey Rothweiler, PhD, psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Athletes, cheerleaders, scholars and loners alike can be suicidal.”
Although teens with a history of poor impulse control are at higher risk for suicide, no one factor is a definite clue. He says the time between ages 15 and 17 also seems to be a particularly vulnerable period, but teens of any age are at risk.
Inside a Teen’s Mind
Why are teens at such risk for suicide? Teens are starting to think like adults, yet their frontal lobe—the part of the brain that controls planning, impulse control and reasoning—is still developing. Teens are very much about “me” and “now” and have difficulty grasping the concept of the future, Dr. Rothweiler says.
“They don’t see the bigger picture. Most adults know that bad things pass, but teens don’t get that,” he explains. “When they see bad things on the horizon, they lack experience and knowledge, so they rush to a solution—and that may be suicide.
“In therapy, I tell teens that however old you are, that’s how high the hill is you stand on to see ahead. The older you get, the taller the hill gets, and the farther you can see. As teens get older, they become more future-oriented and have better impulse control.”
Make Words an Issue
Some teens truly intend to commit suicide while others make suicidal gestures for attention.
“It can be difficult to tell the differences,” Dr. Rothweiler explains. “If teens are seriously suicidal, they don’t talk about it; they just do it. If they’re only thinking about it, they’ll talk about it. Always take it seriously, but don’t necessarily think they’ll do something right away.”
Sometimes teens use alarming words when they feel overwhelmed, Dr. Rothweiler says.
“If a teen says, ‘I’ll just kill myself,’ he or she doesn’t usually mean that. It’s more often a state of being overwhelmed,” Dr. Rothweiler says. “Hold them accountable by making word choices an issue in your house. If teens say something about suicide, calmly tell them to explain themselves. They may just mean that they hate math. If you discover there’s more to it, then get help.”
As you raise kids, Dr. Rothweiler says some factors can help develop better coping mechanisms that will be especially helpful when they reach their teen years. These include:
- Open communication
- Consistent family support
- Having family dinners together frequently where talking is encouraged
- Using movies and current events as conversation starters for difficult issues, such as sexuality, suicide, drinking and drugs
Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior
- Low mood, depression or anxiety on most days for two weeks or more
- Withdrawal, spending lots of time alone or lack of interest in being with friends
- Loss of interest in doing things he or she previously enjoyed
- Despondent, pessimistic attitude; being overly emotional
- Expressions of hopelessness or helplessness
- Giving possessions away
What to Do if You’re Worried
Sometimes a trigger for suicidal behavior is not always obvious or apparent, according to Dr. Rothweiler.
“If a teen just broke up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, he or she may be low for a few days. That’s normal. Don’t panic,” he says. “But if a low mood continues every day for two weeks or more, you need to address it.”
He says about one-third of all suicides are by teens who have confusion or worries about their sexual orientation.
“High family support for teens lowers the risk,” he adds. “Parents are the local experts on their kids. If you are worried, carefully assess your child’s behavior and get outside help if needed. There’s no stigma in asking for help for your child.”
If you have a suspicion that a teen is suicidal, it’s important to take action.
Have an honest, forthright conversation with your teen. Don’t be accusatory, but gently ask if your child is thinking about suicide. Sometimes teens just need to talk, and getting out their angst helps. Usually a teen is glad to talk, and it can become a turning point.
Talk to your friend to see what’s bothering him or her. If the friend is feeling helpless and without hope, talking can help. Privately share your concerns with a parent, school counselor, teacher or administrator. Follow the rule: If you see something, say something.
Get Quick Answers from Professionals
When you’re worried about your teen, one place to call for fast answers is 314.454.TEEN (8336) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
“Through this easy-to-access help line, parents can ask trained professionals if a behavior is normal, and we can reassure parents or direct them to the right resources if necessary,” Dr. Rothweiler says.