If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may wonder how this alien invaded your home. You suddenly have no idea who this “new” child is. Your once responsive, communicative son or daughter now answers your questions in monosyllables, if he/she answers at all. Your teen hangs out in the sanctuary—the bedroom (often with door closed)—and spends an inordinate amount of time texting, posting, and tweeting. Overnight, your teen has no interest in sharing feelings and, for that matter, little else.
What’s going on? Hormones? Rock music? Boredom? Drugs? Depression? Thoughts of suicide?
For many teens, it is the still-developing brain that is the root cause. 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.” Teens don’t often make the responsible decisions—as if you don’t already know that.
And that is the rub: how do you know whether your teen’s behavior is normal and will get better in a year or two (Seems like a lifetime, right?) or whether there are serious problems that need to be addressed?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Be aware of the warning signs of depression and/or anxiety disorder. Depression is on the rise, particularly among teen girls. Between 2004 and 2015, six percent of boys and as high as 15 to 16 percent of girls were depressed. If any of the following signs persist for more than two weeks, your teen may need professional help—if, for no other reason, than to talk with another adult.
• Desire to be “perfect”
• Need for constant approval and reassurance
• Easily fatigued
• Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
• Problems with sleep
• Changes in eating habits
• Loss of interest in friends and other activities
It’s important to understand that, while many people who think about suicide are depressed, being depressed is just one of many causes of suicide. THERE IS NEVER ONE REASON WHY SOMEONE TAKES HIS LIFE.
2. Distinguish between myth and fact about teen suicide.
MYTH: When teens (and adults) talk about taking their own lives, they are just looking for attention. Ignoring them is the best thing you can do.
FACT: Most people who take their own lives do talk about it. Eighty percent of adolescent suicides make open threats.
MYTH: Once your teen decides to take his/her own life, there is nothing you can do.
FACT: Not true. On the contrary, suicidal teens are often ambivalent about living or dying. It is not your responsibility (or capability) to save your teen. But you can listen, watch for warning signs, and consult with a health professional.
MYTH: Once your son or daughter tries to kill himself/herself, the pain and shame will keep him/her from trying again.
FACT: Just the opposite is true. Within the first three months to a year following a suicide attempt, teens (adults) are at the highest risk of a second attempt.
MYTH: Once your child’s depression appears to have lifted, she is out of danger.
FACT: Depression can be most dangerous when it appears to be lifting. When someone feels better, they may the energy and ability to make a plan and carry through.
MYTH: Talking about suicide will give ideas to a teen.
FACT: Another common mistake. You don’t give someone thoughts of suicide. The thoughts are already there. Talking with a teen openly and honestly—without judgment or blame—can help, not hurt. Again, it’s not your job to save your teen but to show that you care and, when necessary, seek professional help.
3. Practice active listening—a technique that shows you care and understand (or try to understand) what your teen is feeling. Don’t lecture or try to solve your teen’s problems. Instead, use phrases like “If I hear you correctly, you ______________________. Mirror what is being said. If you reflect accurately, your teen may nod in agreement or want to talk further. If not, give it a second try. Watch your body language. Establish direct eye contact. Don’t be distracted. These nonverbal behaviors help show that you care.
4. Understand that is never your job to save your child. But it is your job to break the code of silence, even if you are sworn to secrecy. Better to have an angry teen than no teen at all.
Adolescence is a confusing time for parents and teens. But there are many things you can do to help your son or daughter break the cycle of teen suicide.