Parents don’t always realize that their teen is suicidal

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

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
    • fatigue
  • 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.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Related Information: Understanding Depression

Comments:

  1. MindBodyThoughts.com

    It is so important to be aware because I think for many teens (even adults), it is hard to reach out. Too many times, people reject that cry for help with platitudes or memes or other things that do very little. In fact, far too often I think we dismiss people that really need help because we either don’t know how to respond with compassion or we get too busy. This is an epidemic that needs all hands on deck.

  2. Wilfred James

    Lucky for me, coworkers underestimate suicidal ideation of their colleagues. The despair, the hopelessness, one experiences being stuck in a dead end job with no chance of betterment is intolerable for many. Some find solace in alcohol, others in opioids, but the path to freeing oneself of the pain they experience leads to the same destination. We have a cutthroat society that does not care about the ‘other.’ The high minded individuals in their ivory towers can pat each other on the back all they want, but no one is addressing the true lack of opportunity for so many, be they teenagers or adults. This has been an issue for years now, and since people are more interested in voicing their outrage for whichever inconsequential issue is dominating social media, and then in turn the news, nothing is being done to give people hope for a better future, a promising tomorrow, one filled with family and friends, nature, and the opportunity to feel valued and respected in society. Some day after I’m dead, perhaps, these members of society will not be made to feel inferior or excluded. We could regain the hope that permeated our society. Luckily for me, few will read this comment and even fewer will actually try to understand someone else’s perspective.

    • Jasmine Landry

      Wilfred, the tone of your comment is not unlike this post, grim. I am praying for you and encourage you to seek help. Your creator cares about your feelings and is there to help you if you only ask. I hope you reach out to Him and or the people He has put in your proximity who will help. There are people who care and people who WILL listen to your perspective, including me.

    • Rosemary

      Please check out http://www.gettingbetterfoundation.org This family run foundation’s mission is to help build hope and trust in a world sometimes fueled by media hyped negativity. You are valued and we are all aligned.

    • Dan Manier

      Wilfred,
      I was reading this because I’m concerned about my daughter when I came across your comments. It breaks my heart to hear about and feel your pain – and I don’t even know you. What you talked about is all too true, but its not the end. You can find joy and peace inside yourself, in spite of the horrors and injustice in our world. The high and mighty are full of fear too, they hide behind their status, stuff and masks – I suspect that very few of them are truly happy. Being stuck in a job you don’t like isn’t fun, but you can find happiness anyway, and then you can share it. I agree with Jasmine that seeking a connection with the divine – the Universal consciousness, creator, God (don’t get hung up on the name or what others believe and preach) – is part of the way out. Look deeply inside yourself. Focus on what you can change (yourself and your perspective) and not on what you cannot (everyone else). Once you find it, the best way to keep peace and joy is to share it – give it away!

  3. Yoram Harth MD

    An underrated cause of depression in teens is acne. As a Dermatologist for 30 years, I see it every day. People with acne are stressed. Once acne is under control – they feel better. As parents, we need to remember that and help our kids get their acne treated as soon as they possibly can. Check out https://www.mdacne.com/article/how-to-stay-positive-while-fighting-acne for some more relevant advice.

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