Parents like to think that they know what is going on with their children — and that they would know if their teen was suicidal. However, research shows that this is not always the case.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers interviewed more than 5,000 adolescents ages 11 to 17. In those interviews, they asked them if they had ever thought about killing themselves — or if they had ever thought a lot about death or dying. The parents were asked if they believed that their teens had ever thought about killing themselves or had thought a lot about death or dying.
There wasn’t a whole lot of match-up. Half of the parents of the adolescents who thought of killing themselves were unaware — as were three-quarters of the parents of adolescents who thought often about death.
If you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising, for lots of reasons. Teens may not always realize how bad they are feeling, and may not want to tell their parents when they do — both for fear of worrying them, and also because of uncertainty about how their parents might react. Parents may miss signs of depression in their teens, or quite genuinely misinterpret them or attribute them to something innocent; after all, it’s natural to want to believe that your child is fine, rather than thinking that they might be suicidal. And given how much drama can be intrinsic to the life of a teen, it’s understandable that parents could misinterpret statements about death or dying as, well, just teen drama.
The authors of the study encourage pediatricians to rely on other informants besides parents when it comes to figuring out whether a teen might be suicidal. But there are things that parents can do, too:
- Be aware of signs of depression in teens, and never ignore them. Acting sad is one of them, but there are many others:
- dropping grades
- being irritable or angry often
- acting bored all the time, and/or dropping out of activities
- difficulty with relationships, including changing peer groups or becoming more isolated
- dangerous or risky behavior
- persistent physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches
- Listen to your teen, and never assume that statements like “nobody cares if I live or die” are just drama. Instead of saying, “You don’t mean that,” ask them if they do mean it. Often parents worry that asking about suicide might “give them ideas,” but asking may be the only way to know — and the best way to show your teen that you are taking them seriously.
- Get help. Call your doctor, call a mental health professional, call a suicide hotline, or take your child to a local emergency room. This is crucial. If counseling is recommended, be sure to get it, and make sure your teen sticks with it.
- If you suspect your teen may be depressed or suicidal, take precautions. If you have a gun in your house, make sure it is locked up with the ammunition locked separately. Take stock of prescription medications and alcohol in your house that could be used for self-harm, and either get rid of them or be sure they are stored safely.
Sometimes it is just drama — or some short-term blues after a breakup or another one of life’s inevitable disappointments. And in the study, half of the teens whose parents thought they were suicidal, and two-thirds of those whose parents thought they thought about death, said they were fine. But when it comes to suicide, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. So ask the questions — and ask for help.
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