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Teen Suicide Prevention: Parents Can Play an Important Role

When parents are informed and stay connected, they emotionally protect teens.

Key points

  • When parents learn about causes, warning signs, risks, and protective factors related to suicide, they are prepared to respond to their teens.
  • When parents listen and share feelings and information about cyberbullying, bullying, and stress with teens, they foster connection and care.
  • When parents stay connected in any way possible, from driving together to supporting their teen's friends, they protect their teens.

It is difficult to look too closely at what baffles and terrifies us until we have to. Teen suicide is one of those realities.

Whether it is a teen from our own town or a youngster we read about online, learning of the death by suicide of a young person jolts us into pain and terror. It drives us to ask, “Could that be my teen?”

The question is an important one if it fuels an urgency to embrace two key features of teen suicide prevention: Information and the power of connection.

The Reality of Teen Suicide

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency regarding child and adolescent mental health. They report rising rates of childhood mental health problems and increases in suicide rates between 2010 and 2020. By 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.

Expanding on this, the CDC reported that In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to emergency departments for suspected suicide attempts began to increase among adolescents ages 12-17. Between February 21 and March 20th, 2021, visits to the ER were 50.6 percent higher among girls aged 12-17 than during the same period in 2019. Among boys aged 12-17, suspected suicide attempt ED visits increased by 3.7 percent.

What Causes Suicidal Behavior?

In my work over many years with those who have lost a loved one to suicide, the most compelling question people ask is, "Why?" “Why didn’t she reach for help?”

According to Edwin Shneidman, founder of the American Society of Suicidology and author of Suicide as Psychache, suicide is bewildering to those who have lost a loved one. To someone suffering, however, suicide is a desperate attempt to end psychic pain, be it experienced as fear, depression, loss, shame, isolation, etc.

Schneiderman suggests that with such “psychache,” thinking becomes constricted. When a person is suicidal, the thought of ending pain is not always equated with the actual reality of ending life. Constricted thinking disqualifies logic.

The teen who is being cyberbullied and facing demands with threats that his picture will go viral is unable to realize, in a tortured state of mind, that his parents love him and can help him.

The Need to Speak About Suicide

Whereas there are those teens who are able to make their desperation clear to a friend, parent, or family member, many feel too much shame for their victimization or desperation to reach out. Many parents are unsure how to speak about suicide or whether it is a safe option.

Kids know about suicide from suicidal peers as well as the media. They just may not know how to speak about it or speak about it with their parents.

According to Maureen Underwood, author of Lifelines: A Suicide Prevention Program, speaking about suicide does not plant ideas. It often empowers teens to reach for help.

Girl Being Bullied By Text Message
Source: Highwaystarz/iStockphoto

Suicide Warning Signs

Knowing the warning signs of suicide is a protective factor. The Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide uses the Acronym “FACTS” as a guide for warning signs: F (Feelings), A (Actions), C (Changes in Patterns), T (Threats), and S (Situations).

Feelings: Untreated depression is the single most significant risk factor for completed suicide in adolescents. A teen may express depression in feelings of sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, loneliness, guilt, shame, anxiety, or worry. Often there is an expression of self-deprecation that does not change.

“I’ll always be a loser.”

This type of thinking warrants support and mental health treatment.

Actions: The behavior of teens is important to consider because depression in teens may be reflected in the use of drugs and alcohol or masked by irritability, cutting, school problems, or risk-taking behavior. Too often, the teen’s provocative behavior results in cycles of fighting and animosity that create distance between parent and teen.

“Just leave me alone. Get off my back!”

When you see warning signs, move in closer with concern rather than criticism. The important thing is being authentic and connecting with love and concern.

“I know we have been yelling at each other lately, but it dawned on me that you have been struggling. I almost missed it. I want to help.”

Changes: At times, no one knows their teen like the parent. Changes in personality and day-to-day patterns of sleeping, eating, involvement with friends, interest in activities, and sudden elation after being depressed are signs that warrant attention.

When one mother heard her college freshman son quit the soccer team and was unhappy with his roommates, she got into her car and drove four hours to see him. She sensed that he was acting desperate.

Threats: Any verbalized or veiled threat like, “Who cares if I’m dead or alive, anyway?” said directly, posted online, or a sudden focus on death and dying in the news, removal of prescription medication from its usual spot, etc., cannot be ignored.

Asking your teen about suicide does not cause it. As one mother said, “I had to ask him if he was suicidal because if he was, he would have been alone with it.”

Act on what you hear:

Situations of Risk. There are certain situations that may jeopardize a teen’s coping capacity and increase the chances of feeling there is no solution and no way to stop the pain. These can include:

Prior Suicide Attempt. A prior suicide attempt poses a serious risk for another attempt. This red flag of concern warrants family connection and mental health care.

Sudden Loss. The loss of a parent, sibling, or friend to illness, accident or suicide, or unwanted separation from family or friends are often traumatic situations for teens. These are situations where you might provide connection and support before it is requested.

Bullying. Being bullied is particularly dangerous because it generates terror, fear, shame, and often the feeling of being trapped without recourse.

As discussed with expert Tracy Vaillancourt in a recent podcast, “Understanding Bullying & Recognizing Pathways to Prevention” on Psych Up Live, bullying warrants involvement by parents as well as school personnel because bullying often occurs out of the sight of teachers on the way to and from school, in hallways and schoolyards.

The most important protection for a teen is to know that they have not caused this and that they have a support system to address the situation and prevent retaliation. In addition to the school resources, parents and teens might want to use resources like

Cyberbullying. Parents need to speak openly about cyberbullying with family members. According to Vaillancourt, the response to cyberbullying should always be “Take a screenshot, block, and report.”

Information on reporting cyberbullying is available.

Bias Against LGBTQ Youth. Research between 2015 and 2018 found that suicide attempts were significantly higher for students who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. Parental support, peer group support, and online support like The Trevor Project can be crucial in buffering and working with school or community situations that may be less receptive.

When parents and teens work together, they can move from despair to hope.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
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