Warning Signs of Suicidal Thoughts: Understanding Your Teen’s Cry for Help

Dec 21, 2017

Whether a parent has heard it 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.

Understanding Potential Risks

  1. Withdrawal from Usual Activities: When kids who have been typically interested in activities and friends 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.

  2. Depressed Mood: Symptoms 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, persistent sadness. It is not uncommon for those who are depressed or suicidal to ignore hygiene and personal appearance.

  3. Frequent Outbursts of Anger: Teenagers 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 labile or depressed mood may be signs of bipolar disorder or other mental illness.

  4. Current Family Difficulties or Traumatic Life Events: Children 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. Death of a loved one or even a family move may leave a child feeling lonely and ignored. Sometimes their way of coping is to withdraw or to become angry.

  5. School Difficulties: Students who contemplate suicide sometimes tell a friend or write about it in school essays. Their feelings of hopelessness and helplessness 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, cyberbullying 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.

  6. Self-Injury: Sometimes the cry for help appears in more hidden, but destructive, ways. Self-injury often begins as a way of self-soothing. 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” their pain. 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.

What You Can Do

  1. Pay Attention:As 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 monitor their internet and mobile devices with a parental control software. Find an opportunity or an open door to talk with them. Try saying something empathic 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 to understand or comprehend, listen for the message underneath their behavior.

  2. Seek Help: If your child exhibits signs of depression, anxiety with feelings of hopeless and helplessness, it is important that you seek help. 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 www.helpguide.org are helpful online resources for teens and parents.

  3. Create a Village: You will need support as a parent. Spend time with friends who may understand your angst because they have teenagers too. Reach out to the 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.

  4. Talk about It: Don’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. 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.

Teens go through a very turbulent and emotional time in their development. 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 teens……and it’s good for you too.