Being a teen is tough and as a parent, the day to day mood swings, likes, and dislikes of your teen can be dizzying to keep up with. With all this going on, it’s important for parents to keep an eye out for more serious signs that their child may be having suicidal thoughts and are in need of a lifeline.
Whether a parent has heard it before or not, nothing brings about more fear for a family when their child runs off screaming, “I wish I were dead!” Screams that perhaps began in tears or angst over a family argument, relentless bullying from so-called “friends,” or a progressive tumble into a deep depression.
Parents, and others, might be tempted to look the other way, writing off the behavior as “typical teenage rebellion” or as “a kid who just needs attention.” Needing attention is exactly what this child needs and sometimes they don’t know how to best let you know. The warning signs of suicidal risks and what you can do about them are important to understand as dealing with them early on is key to healing.
What Parents Need to Know About Teen Suicide
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System reported that in 2017, 17.2% of high schoolers reported considering suicide, a number that has increased 25% since 2009. Teen suicide is a growing problem and there are numerous reasons that a teen might resort to suicide as an extreme solution. The question that remains however, is what can parents do to prevent teen suicide by identifying and addressing patterns that may indicate suicidal thoughts?
The seriousness of teen suicide can’t be overlooked and here are 6 warning signs that your teen might be having suicidal thoughts:
- Withdrawal from Usual ActivitiesWhen kids who have been typically interested in their social life and extracurriculars begin withdrawing from friends, activities and family gatherings, it is important to wonder what might be going on for your child. Sometimes withdrawal is a sign of depression which is a leading cause of suicide.
- Depressed MoodSymptoms of depression can include, but is not limited to, fatigue and decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, hopelessness and helplessness, notable changes in sleep patterns such as insomnia or excessive sleeping, notable changes in appetite such as overeating or appetite loss, and persistent sadness. It is also not uncommon for those who are depressed or suicidal to ignore hygiene and personal appearance.
- Frequent Outbursts of AngerTeenagers typically have mood swings, all of which need to be addressed. Mood swings that may be more concerning are those that seemingly come out of nowhere and without understandable context. Some of these mood swings may come with threats of violence and self-harm, expressing their sense of hopelessness in an aggressive way. Mood fluctuations between extreme anger or manic behavior and irregular or depressed mood may be signs of bipolar disorder or other mental illness.
- Current Family Difficulties or Traumatic Life EventsChildren and teens often experience their parents’ marital conflict or divorce as life altering and traumatic. Hopelessness and helplessness often begin within that child when these difficulties go undiscussed. A death of a loved one or even a family move may leave a child feeling lonely and ignored and sometimes their way of coping is to withdraw or to become angry.
- School DifficultiesStudents who contemplate suicide sometimes tell a friend or write about it in school essays. Their feelings of hopelessness may come from a variety of school experiences. Academic pressure from parents or from schools may feel insurmountable especially when the message is that the student is not “good enough” unless they have a perfect score.
Bullying is a pervasive school problem that students often do not disclose because of shame and embarrassment. Adults may minimize the effects of bullying, but students experience the trauma of such harassment on a daily basis. Currently going beyond name calling and shunning, cyber bullying with mobile devices takes the harassment to a viral level. Students are subject to physical and sexual threats, altered Instagram posts, group humiliation and rejection sometimes accompanied with bribes in order for the bullying to stop.
- Self-InjurySometimes the cry for help appears in more hidden, but destructive, ways. Self-injury often begins as a way of self-soothing, with some students report that cutting, or self-mutilation, is a way that they still see if they can feel.
Substance use of alcohol and drugs temporarily numbs the pain. Food binging sometimes begins as a way to “swallow” the pain while purging is a way to “express” it. And sometimes the student feels as if they can “disappear” or stay in control through restricted eating or anorexia. A disregard for one’s own life can also appear in careless behavior such as reckless driving, unsafe sex, or maintaining destructive and abusive relationships.
Depression and Suicide
Untreated depression and anxiety in teens can often to lead to suicide because it’s hard for teens to find the help that they so desperately require. Sometimes depression and anxiety can be difficult to identify for both teens and parents; the teenage years are volatile enough and a serious case of depression could easily be written off as a moody teen. Even more, teens might not be able to accurately vocalize that their mental health is suffering, if they can even identify that that is the source of their unhappiness.
Depression and suicide have a lot of the same symptoms and warning signs such as:
- Emotional changes
- Low self-esteem
- Loss of interest in usual or social activities
- Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- Social isolation
- Poor academic performance and increase absences from school
Bullying and Suicide
Bullying and cyber bullying can also play a role in suicidal thoughts and suicide. In fact, the link between the two is so strong that Yale University reported victims of bullying in it’s various forms are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide.
Now that so much of our lives are online, kids not only have to worry about bullying at school and social activities but this bullying can continue online, at all times of day, easily broadcast to every person they know. For teens, this means it can feel inescapable and lead to feelings of shame. And according to dosomething.org, only 1 in 10 online bullying victims will report abuse to a parent or trusted adult which is another reason why it’s critical for parents to pay attention to the warning signs.
Social Media and Suicide
Not only is all that time that teens are spending online and on their phones leading to increased cyber bullying, but it’s also leading to teens playing the comparison game and constantly thinking they are not enough. As a teen, everything feels incredibly important and powerful and this really is true for the effects that social media can have on their mental health: cyber bullying, comparison traps, and social isolation can seriously and negatively impact our teens.
Encouraging healthy amounts of screen time, addressing social media FOMO, and reminding your teens that you are available as a resource can help ensure that your teen remains in a healthy headspace.
What Parents Can Do to Prevent Teen Suicide
Knowing tips about how to prevent suicide is the first place parents and others should start if they notice changes in their teen and their behavior. Having this knowledge and the right resources can help you prevent teen suicide.
- Pay AttentionAs tempting as it is to look the other way, denial will not help your child. Notice the changes in your child’s appearance, mood, and academics. Trust your gut and use a little detective work—talk with their school counselor, network with other parents who might be “in the know,” check their grades and homework, look in their backpacks and room, and use an Internet filter to keep them safe while they’re online.
Find an opportunity or an open door to talk with them. Try saying something empathetic such as “I’ve noticed you’re not really yourself these days. It seems like something is bothering you. I’d like to talk about it with you if you’d like.” Be prepared for a shrug, an outburst, or getting blown off. At least you’ve said something. Keep saying it with love and without accusation; don’t try and talk them out of their feelings or minimize their experience. As difficult as it may be to understand or comprehend, listen for the message underneath their behavior.
- Seek HelpIf your child exhibits signs of depression, anxiety or feelings of helplessness, it is important that you seek assistance. Ask your doctor or school for a referral to a good mental health professional to assess the emotional changes. Be open to family therapy and open to what your child is saying about their inability to cope.
Be courageous in hearing that they may have thought about ending their life. Work together to make small and significant changes in their daily experience to help elevate their mood, keep them safe, and intervene where necessary. Sites like Help Guide are helpful online resources for teens and parents.
- Create a VillageYou will need support as a parent; spend time with friends who may understand your angst because they have teenagers too. Reach out to school counselors as they may have their pulse on the academic environment and school day. Involve your network who may be connected to your child; perhaps older siblings or family members are connected to them in cyberspace where they may be able to educate you and fill you in regarding your concerns.
- Talk About ItDon’t be afraid to ask your teen (or anyone else) if they are so hopeless that they feel ending their life is an option. People who receive support from caring friends and family and who have access to mental health services are less likely to act on their suicidal impulses than are those who are socially isolated. Ask your teen what you can do to be helpful.
Keep your own stressors in check and examine whether or not your expectations are exacerbating your child’s issues and be realistic. One conversation is just a beginning; keep up the conversations as there is no easy fix. It is not helpful to tell your child “why don’t you just find other friends,” or “how about we redecorate your room?” These are not harmful statements, but the conversation cannot end there.
How Parental Control Software Can Prevent Teen Suicide
Parental control software may not immediately come to mind as a tool parents can use in preventing teen suicide, but it can be incredibly valuable. Parental control software can provide parents with a window into their teen’s online activity and online searches. The visibility that PC software provides can give parents crucial visibility to patterns that might be taking place as well as allowing them to set up alerts and reports for searches that their child is performing online.
Teens contemplating suicide often turn to the Internet when they’re not finding support or answers in other areas of their life. It’s a place of anonymity and there are plenty of sites and people that not only provide information on teen suicide, but encourage it. A teen with less than stellar mental health might begin searching things like “I feel so alone” or “am I depressed” and these searches alone should be enough to tip parents off that there is a bigger problem than your teen just being moody. Those searches might later escalate to ones like “ways to self-harm without a knife,” “how to commit suicide,” and “easiest way to commit suicide” all of which provide a staggering number of search results on Google with upwards of hundreds of millions of hits.
With PC software, parents can block websites that discuss suicide and set up alerts and reports for searches their child performs online. Paying attention to changes and serious warning signs of suicidal thoughts in real life is incredibly important but parents shouldn’t overlook the significance of their teen’s online activity. Acting as a second set of eyes, PC software can help parents see more and in the case that your teen might be having suicidal thoughts, it can be key in helping you prevent it.
Teens go through a very turbulent and emotional time in their development but hopefully their difficulties do not emerge as suicidal thoughts. Spending time with them doing things they like to do, talking with them about their day and your day, and encouraging them to find some safe social connection is good for all teen… and it’s good for you too.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255 for more resources.
Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD
Dr Charlene Underhill Miller, a psychotherapist in Southern California, working with parents, couples and families. She is a frequent and popular speaker to community groups, a professor, a wife and mother. www.underhillmiller.com