Parenting teens in a difficult world requires listening and watching closely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported a startling statistic on teen suicide: Emergency room visits for attempted suicide among teenage girls were up 51.6 percent in the first months of 2021, as compared to 2019.
So, what’s going on? And more to the point, what is going terribly wrong for our children? What’s creating such a level of suffering that suicide is seen as a potential solution? And, more urgently, what can we as parents, and adults in general, do about this disturbing new reality?
The complicated reasons behind the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are more intricate than I can discuss here. But one theory that tries to explain the statistic above is that girls, specifically, rely on social connections to friends, teachers, and schools for their mental health. The interactions that social connection depends on have been lost or terribly disrupted during the past two years. At the same time, we know that a serious disturbance in social rhythms drastically increases the risk for a major depressive episode among teens with mood disorders, which includes up to 20 percent of teen girls. Furthermore, 9 out of 10 teens who commit suicide have a psychiatric or mental health condition, more than half of which are mood disorders.
On a related side note, suicide is up in general. According to the CDC, “Suicide rates increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2019.”
It’s also worth mentioning that in almost every conversation about this topic I’ve had with teen and tween girls (including my own teen and tween daughters), I was told some version of the sentiment, “Girls can’t win these days.” Specifically, the pressure is overwhelming and relentless to look a certain way, have a certain body, a certain face, buy the right things, behave in a certain way, and have enough followers and likes. It feels like it is either be fabulous in every way—or be destroyed. The amount of judgment and criticism coming at our girls on social media is psychologically unmanageable for many of them.
I don’t want to use this space to posit theories on why we’re where we are today. Rather, I want to offer whatever I can to help. The first thing to know is a sobering truth: namely, that we don’t always know when our child is suffering to the extent that they would consider suicide.
In the past year alone, I learned of two different families who lost a teen to suicide; in both cases, the parents were loving and involved, and still didn’t know how badly their child was struggling. Teens are really good at hiding things and being secretive; it’s part of being a teenager and individuating. We can be really devoted to our kids and still not know what’s actually going on inside their minds. So, the first thing to know is that just because your kid doesn’t tell you how much pain they’re in doesn’t mean that their suffering is your fault and doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.
That said, however, it behooves us as parents to be proactive and initiate conversations with our kids about their difficult feelings. We have to be the ones to raise the hard topics: isolation, loneliness, fear, depression, anxiety, hopelessness—and suicide. We have to ask them point-blank whether they have ever thought about hurting themselves and, if so, why. And we can ask if they are willing to make a pact with us that they will come to us first, no matter what, and talk to us before doing anything to harm themselves. So, too, we have to inquire about what they’re doing online, who they’re talking to, and about what.
The fact is, we can’t wait for our tweens and teens to come to us or, God forbid, not come to us when they’re in pain. Even if they give us one-word answers or just shrugs from inside their hoodies, we still need to invite them to talk about what hurts. It’s of profound importance that we welcome their confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and all the rest of their experience. It shows our kids that we care, not just about their strong, successful, and resilient parts, but about all of them, including the parts of themselves that they may think are shameful and unwanted. Our continuing interest in their inner life shows that we have the emotional strength and solidity to hold their difficult feelings, that we aren’t afraid of their big issues, so they don’t have to be.
If you’re worried, bringing the topic of suicide into the light doesn’t cause it. If a child isn’t depressed, talking about depression will not create it. We, as parents, need to talk about the hardest feelings our kids may endure, so that if and when they do feel such things, they know we’re available to help them through it.
The reality is, our children are growing up in a world where we now wear masks to protect ourselves from each other. They’re growing up in a world where we talk about the end of the inhabitable world. It’s a scary and chaotic place in which to become a person. Fear and hopelessness are just part of their lived experience. We need to recognize these realities and let our children know that we understand what they’re dealing with.
Signs that a teen is struggling
The degree to which our child may be suffering—or what she might be thinking of doing about it—isn’t always clear. But there are certain warning signs to watch for, particularly if your child has recently undergone an emotional upheaval, death, public humiliation, or a significant blow to their self-esteem or sense of belonging.
Some of the warning signs of teen suicide include:
- Changes in appearance or hygiene
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- A sudden drop in grades
- Social withdrawal
- Talking about suicide or preoccupation with death. Examples include comments such as: “Nothing matters,” “I don’t care anymore,” “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up,” “Everyone would be better off without me,” or “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
- Talk about hopelessness or having nothing to live for
- Researching suicide methods or acquiring potential weapons
- Giving away possessions
- Peer pressure and being bullied
- Sexual or gender identity confusion
While adolescence is defined by moodiness and volatile emotions, if your child has seemed low or if their mood has been noticeably changed for a couple of weeks, it may be a red flag that something bigger is going on.
Things you can do to help your teen
If you think your teen might be in imminent danger, call 911, your local emergency number, or a suicide hotline number—such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) in the United States. Or text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If the danger isn’t imminent, you can take several other steps to help your child.
Get professional help. You can start by talking to your child’s pediatrician. Even if you think that whatever your teen is exhibiting is explainable by adolescence, a recent breakup, a friend group change, a failure of some sort, or any other stressful event, get professional help anyway.
Pay close attention to warning signs.
Talk to your child about her feelings; be curious, ask questions, and actively listen to the answers. Don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.”
Never dismiss your child’s feelings. Consider all her feelings to be true and real.
Remind your teen that you love her, and reassure her that she can get through this hard time and that you are right there to help her. Reassure her that things do get better and do, in fact, change.
Monitor your teen’s social media use and talk with her about her online life.
Encourage her not to isolate herself from friends and family.
Encourage her to exercise and, if necessary, exercise with her.
Lock up any weapons (and possibly medications) in the house.
It’s hard (and painful) to be a teenager these days. It’s also hard (and painful) to be a parent of a teenager. These may be unchangeable truths, but we can make a profound difference in how our child walks with and through her pain, and what she does with it. It’s important to say that sometimes, even when we do everything humanly possible to ease our child’s suffering, we still can’t help her. Despite our most loving intentions and actions, our child’s mental health isn’t always ours to control. But sometimes we can help our child, with our intentions and our actions, and that possibility is exactly why we try—and never stop trying.
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