What Parents Need to Know about Teen Suicide

Reprinted with permission from Children’s Friend, Worcester, MA

Since Tyler Clementi, a brilliant, 18-year old violinist, took his own life in September, more stories of teen suicides have emerged and shocked people across the U.S. Tyler was the fourth gay teenager to kill himself within only a few weeks, and this past weekend it happened again in Oklahoma.

It would be a terrible mistake, though, to think that suicide is only a risk for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender young people (often referred to collectively as “GLBTQ”). While incidents of suicide and attempted suicide are more frequent among teens in sexual minorities because of the harassment and rejection they so often face, teen suicide is a much broader problem in our community and nationwide. At Children’s Friend we regularly treat both GLBTQ and straight kids who have attempted suicide or injured themselves.

Dr. Jennifer Denaro heads Children’s Friend’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) team. Our DBT is a specialized outpatient program for adolescents who are at high risk of self-harm or suicide, and many of the teens in the program have histories of serious suicide attempts. We asked Dr. Denaro why a young person would try to end his or her life. Here’s what she said.
“Most teenagers whom I have talked to after a suicide attempt report that they were feeling very depressed or felt that they couldn’t tolerate an overwhelming event that happened, and they were trying to escape the situation or get relief from their feelings. Most kids who try to kill themselves don’t want to die. They don’t think about death as permanent and seem to be trying to escape feelings such as sadness, hurt, shame or loss. They often don’t know what else to do about these painful emotions and feel completely overpowered by them. These emotions take over and result in impulsive behavior. Some teenagers also act because they feel unwanted and unloved.”

How sad that young people with so much life ahead of them are in such despair. Most of the kids who take their own lives are probably loved, even if they don’t feel they are. The brain of a child or teen isn’t fully developed. What is clear and logical to you as a parent may not occur to a young person, so it’s important not to ignore signs of trouble.

We thought parents might wonder what warning signs to watch for, so Dr. Denaro has put together the following list of behaviors that should put you on alert:
• Changes in eating habits
• Changes in sleeping pattern
• Social withdrawal (avoiding friends and family)
• Dramatic mood swings (seems happy one minute, full of rage the next)
• Increased irritability
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Loss of interest in school
• Decrease in grades
• Loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
• Persistent boredom
• Sense of hopelessness or guilt
• Increased conflicts with peers
• Unusual interest in death/dying
• Writing poems, stories about death
• Listening to music about death
• Obsessing about the suicide of a famous person

Dr. Denaro emphasizes that there are some behaviors that are warning signs of more immediate risk and should trigger prompt action. If a young person:
• Talks about committing suicide
• Put affairs in order (for example, saying, “If something happens to me….”)
• Makes comments that suggest that he or she has been considering suicide (for example, says things like “I won’t be a problem anymore…,” “I’d be better off dead…,” or “It’s no use…”)
• Gives away favorite belongings
• Writes a will
• Writes a suicide note
• Appears cheerful and at peace after a depressive period or
• Shows signs of psychosis (for example, hearing voices, bizarre thoughts), then it’s time to ACT.

What should a parent do?
• First of all, take any comments about suicide or suggestions about suicide very seriously.
• If your child shows warning signs, acknowledge his or her feelings and provide reassurance and love.
• Listen carefully to what your child is saying to you.
• Remind your child that even when things are overwhelming, they can and will get better.
• Let the child know you want to help.
• Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, including, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
• Ask about his or her suicide plans.
• Get an appointment with a professional, licensed therapist in your area immediately.

If your teenager seems in immediate danger, get to the emergency room at once, even if it means calling 911.
Professional help can make all the difference. Let’s keep our kids safe.

To learn about the Institute for Girls’ Development’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy Programs (DBT) for teens and parents, click here: DBT Skills Groups.

Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.

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