I’m not a stranger to suicide. My mother’s first cousin took her own life, but the cause of her death was listed as an “accident.”

Three days before my wedding to my ex-husband, his aunt took her own life.  Didn’t know whether or not to cancel the wedding.  We went ahead.

My brother took his life on his thirtieth birthday. He stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

And so began my journey to try to understand why 44,000 Americans—more than 5,000 of them teens—decide that life is not worth living. I wrote a book about teen suicide in the late 80s and now some three decades later have written Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide.



  1. We can never know for sure why someone chooses to end his life. We can make educated guesses, read the research, talk to suicide survivors. In the end, we are left with questions that will never be answered.
  2. There is never just one reason why a young person takes her life. It’s not just the breakup with a boyfriend. Or just academic problems. Or alcohol or drug abuse. Or issues faced by LGBTQ teens. Nope, experts say it’s some six to fifteen reasons why. (Not to be confused with the TV series “13 Reasons Why”).
  3. Talking about suicide does not make matters worse. What makes matters worse is not That may sound counterintuitive. But more than anything someone struggling with suicidal thoughts wants someone to listen, to show that they care.
  4. It is never your job to save someone from taking his/her life but to connect with a mental health professional who has the training and expertise to help someone who is considering suicide.
  5. It is your job to break the code of silence if a friend or child or student tells you not to share his feelings. It is always better to have someone angry with you than not to have that person around at all.
  6. Recognizing the warning signs of potential suicide is essential. This is not always easy with teens who can be moody and uncommunicative. Still, it’s important to be on the alert and to notice changes in behavior: eating, sleeping, social habits. And it’s crucial to plug into even more serious warning signs like a teen giving away his possessions, writing a will, crawling into a deep depression or severe anxiety, and an obsession with death.
  7. There are many myths out there about suicide. One of the most prevalent is that when a teen (anyone) talks about suicide they are just looking for attention. The truth is that most teens who take their own lives do talk about it. They make open threats that, sadly, are too often ignored.


Myth: Once a teen decides to take her own life, no one can stop her.

Truth: Even the most hopelessly suicidal person has mixed feelings about death. With help, even that person can be stopped and coaxed toward life.

Myth: Once a teen tries to kill herself, the pain and shame will keep her from trying again.

Truth: Of every five people who take their own lives, four have made one or more previous attempts. And of all teens who attempt suicide, one in three tries again.

  1. The importance of a loyal friend—a connection—who will be there no matter what can make a big difference between a teen deciding to choose life instead of the alternative.


“Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have

to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,

you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.”

“You’ve Got A Friend”—James Taylor









The Wacky Teenage Brain

I am not a neurologist who specializes in adolescent brain development.

I’m not a neurologist. Period. But I’ve read a lot about the wacky teenage brain for the 2nd edition of my book, Dead Serious, a book about teen suicide and what to do about it. (Plug:  You can pre-order the book for an enticing discount beginning November 23, 2017.) Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.

If you’re a teen, I don’t have to tell you how wacky your thinking and actions can get. (At least, that’s what we adults think.) If you’re a parent—well, having a teen in the house may make you wonder how you’ll survive and get along with this “new” person who has invaded your home. You suddenly have no idea who this child of yours has become. The good news: this transformation generally lasts only a year or two. So, hold on!

Without getting too technical, the experts tell us that adolescence is the “most tumultuous time” for the brain since birth. The area right behind the forehead, called the frontal cortex, thickens and continues developing. This is the thinking, planning, strategizing part of the brain, and it is still not “on board”. So, teens often don’t make the most responsible decisions. Duh!

As Frances Jensen, a pediatric neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital commented,

“It’s the part of the brain that says: ‘Is this a good idea? What is the consequence

of this action?’ It’s not that they [teens] don’t have a frontal lobe. And they can use it.

But they’re going to access it more slowly.”

The nerve cells that connect teen’s frontal lobes with the rest of their brains move as slowly as whey they get out of bed in the morning.

The frontal lobe affects mood and risk taking.  This may explain why teens teens take risks like experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol, driving like Indy 500 drivers — the list goes on.  (BTW, my then sixteen-year-old son did the race car driver thing, totaled his dad’s car, and broke his back. I’ve lived this nightmare.) The sluggish frontal lobes make it more challenging for teens to correctly read feelings. One study showed that three-quarters of teens were unable to read fear in others’ faces. If hey can’t see fear, for example, in their peers, they are perhaps more likely to be involved in risky behavior. Teen brains don’t take in and organize information the same way adult brains do. Still, adolescence is a time when the connections teens make with people in their lives can make a huge difference as they move toward young adulthood. Contrary to what teens say, they are “yearning” for more time with their parents. But it’s hard for teens to own up to their needs when their “job” is to become independent. Message to parents: your kid still needs you. They will eventually come around. And message to teens: it does get better. All those crazy things you do are part and parcel of a brain that is still forming. You might think of it as a growth spurt; eventually, you grow into your brain the same way you grow into your body.





So, you know the rub:  Adult only children are spoiled, bossy, selfish, dependent, and grow up too damn fast.

Well, it ain’t so.  At least, that’s what leading sibling researchers like Toni Falbo, author of The Single-Child Family, have found.

“When a person finds out that someone is an only child, they make certain assumptions about them, perhaps that they’re antisocial, shy, or egotistical. Yet when looking at hundreds of studies, I was able to conclude that, on average, only children are like other people. If there are any differences, they are that onlies are more human-motivated and have more self-­esteem.”—Toni Falbo, The Single-Child Family”


Excerpt From: Jane Mersky Leder. “The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives.” iBooks.









Now, I’m married to an only.  My son is an only child as well.  And I must admit: There have been many times when I’ve tried to rationalize some . . . well, rather unbecoming behavior . . . by blaming it all on the fact that they didn’t grow up with brothers and sisters and missed all of the sibling stuff that molds our characters and so many important decisions we make in our lives.  I mean, why wouldn’t an adult only child be spoiled when she was the center of her parents’ undivided attention?  Or, pray tell, wouldn’t an only child grow up to be a rather awkward adult herself without having benefited from those social skills we hone growing up with siblings?

Toni Falbo, the above-mentioned author and professor of educational psychology in the College of Education and faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, helped me set the record straight.

“A lot of people,” she said in a phone interview, “see life as a zero-sum game, in which there is only one answer, one winner, and many losers. So if I say that only children grow up to be like the rest of us, they see it as if only children have won and everybody else has lost. Or, conversely, if somebody says that having siblings is great, then not having sibs is terrible. In fact, life isn’t like that at all; there are many ways of living and growing, of having social networks.”

After decades of research, Falbo concluded that only children were not markedly different from children with siblings. In fact, only children were slightly more verbal, were good students and were not the arrogant centers of the universe.

So, though it’s unscientific to state absolutes about adult onlies, there are stereotypes that are, for most, unfounded myths.




Myth: Only children are aggressive and bossy.

Fact: Only children want to be included and well liked. They learn quickly that being aggressive and bossy pushes potential friends away.

Myth: Only children are spoiled.

Fact:  Researchers have found that only children are not particularly spoiled and that there is no difference in only children’s relationships with friends when studied with children who have siblings.

Myth: Only children are selfish.

Fact: At one time or another, any child can be selfish and think of only himself/herself. Yet parents with one child help cultivate the tools of sharing and feeling for others and can be the best early teachers.

Myth: Only children are dependent.

Fact: Only children are often more independent and self-reliant than children with siblings because they don’t have siblings to depend on.

Myth: Only children grow up too quickly.

Fact: Children with siblings often talk to their siblings more than they talk to their parents. But the most important role model for only children are parents. The result is that only children copy adult behavior, speech patterns, and behavior. This often helps them handle the ups and downs of life more easily.


Do you have anything to add to the conversation?

Excerpt From: Jane Mersky Leder. “The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives.” iBooks.