TUNING IN YOUR TEEN
Heading Off the Most Permanent Decision By KATIE HARLOW, LCSW, Intermountain Clinical Supervisor of School Based Services
hese days there are many words that elicit an immediate, gut reaction in parents—words that can create an instant feeling of fear or powerlessness. Topics like suicide can create such fear or anxiety in us that many of us find it easier to ignore the topic with thoughts of, “This doesn’t apply to my kid” or “I would know if my child was suicidal.” Or maybe we have begun to worry that not everything is right in our child’s world. We shouldn’t let fear keep us from reading further. Suicide is real and very present in today’s teen population. I would hazard to guess that many families affected by a suicide death would tell you that they did not imagine it happening in their family, or perhaps they knew something was wrong but did not know how to approach their child or how to help them. We need to empower ourselves with this knowledge and plan to never need it. Across the country, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people. Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12. These teens were also found to be more likely to have engaged in many other risky behaviors, like not wearing seatbelts or riding in the car with someone who has been drinking, and less likely to have been physically active or gotten at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night. These statistics tell us that we have a growing problem that needs our attention. So what can parents do? We need to start with having a connection to our teens. If we provide an environment for them that is stable and safe both physically
and relationally, the foundation is laid for knowing what is happening in their world. We need to spend time with them where we have the time and space to really listen to what they are saying, both through their words and through their body language. Teen brains work differently than adult brains. They are more impulsive and make decisions based on emotion rather than logic, so we may have to interpret or de-code what they are telling us. This creates an emphasis on encouraging a healthy expression of emotion by a teen. Due to the way their brains develop, teens often appear moody, but encourage them to share their emotions, both positive and negative, so we can help contain them. Practice being supportive rather than directive or advice-giving; we see teens at this age put minimal stock in the opinions of their parents, so while we have good intentions, it is likely our advice is going in one ear and out the other. Next, be on the lookout for potential warning signs that are related to suicide. Watch for changes in behaviors such as a persistently depressed mood, agitation, changes in weight, changes in daily hygiene or dress, increases in time spent sleeping and changes in their usual pattern of spending time with friends. It is important to know that some of these things will change over the course of normal development, so if changes are noticed in a teen’s normal functioning, be aware and talk to them about the changes being seen. Be watchful for discussions or writing about death or dying, beginning or increasing drug or alcohol use, expressing feelings of hopelessness or no purpose, and talking
about or threatening suicide. Lastly, be prepared to take action. If concerning signs are recognized in teen behavior, be ready to talk with them about how they are feeling. If you think they might be suicidal, then ask them! It is a myth that bringing up the topic of suicide increases the risk that someone will commit suicide; seeds are not planted by asking. Remember that there might be an extreme emotional reaction when a teen experiences a significant event in their life, like a break up, changes in family, an important test at school, etc. It is also important to remember that what seems like the end of the world to them won’t match what would solicit that same reaction for a parent. Teens don’t have the advantage of life experience that adults do to help them have perspective about the impact their experiences will truly have on their lives. They tend to view issues as all-encompassing. Providing support and empathy before a teen moves into a state of despair could potentially head off suicidal thoughts. Access help outside of family or support system when needed. This could come in the form of seeking help from a mental health professional, family doctor, or seeking resources provided at school. Other resources are the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or text GO or HELLO to 741 741. In addition, there are many apps for smart phones like ASK, Lifeguard, and Lifebuoy, to name a few. Make sure all these are loaded into a teen’s phone so they have help and resources at their fingertips. ■
Katie Harlow is a Clinical Supervisor of School Based Services for Intermountain in Helena, Montana. Katie provides clinical leadership and oversight to teams of mental health professionals who provide therapeutic services in public school settings.