by Caroline Nersessian, LCSW

“Moodiness and emotionality are a normal part of development during the teen years.”

Teen years can be tough. Young people cope with big decisions about college or work, new kinds of conflicts with parents, and the highs and lows that come with first romantic relationships. Meanwhile, teens are also feeling the effects of hormonal changes.

Moodiness and emotionality are a normal part of development during the teen years. But, some teens are at-risk for mental health conditions and even suicide. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control show that teen suicide is on the rise, which is understandably disconcerting for parents. How do you identify the difference between behaviors that are part of the normal transition to adulthood, and those that are warnings that your child needs help?

While there are no absolute answers, these tips can help:

Listen to your teen. A young person may need help if they often expresses thoughts such as “I feel like a burden,” “I’m always sad,” “I don’t want to do anything or be around anyone.” Especially if these expressions are combined with sleeping too much or too little, change of appetite, and/or lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy. If your child talks about suicide, take it seriously. Sometimes, parents ignore talk of suicide because they believe it’s only a way of seeking attention. But, it’s best to ask for help and know for sure.

Watch your teen’s behavior. Normal hormonal changes during the teen years do affect behavior, but watch for sudden and extreme changes – a normally careful teen who becomes reckless, or an adventurous spirit who is suddenly holding back or isolating. Does your child “appear” sad for extended periods of time? Have they stopped enjoying being with friends, or do they spend whole days in bed? How about grades? Has your honor student suddenly fallen behind in his or her studies, and is it showing on report cards and in calls from concerned teachers?

Know what is going on in your teen’s life. Although we all experience hardships in life, distressing or very stressful events can be triggering for teens who are at-risk for suicide. Has your child recently experienced the ending of a close friendship or relationship? Has there been a recent divorce, or a death of a family member or beloved pet? Pay especially close attention to your child’s reactions if they have recently lost a friend or classmate to suicide. Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon. According the U.S. Department of Health and human services, “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially adolescents and young adults.”

Create a culture of communication in your home—through both your words and your actions. Even though your child is now an adolescent, they still watch and learn from your behavior. If you are in the habit of expressing when you are sad, troubled and stressed in a healthy way, you are sending a strong message to your child – “This is what we do when something is going on: We talk about it.” Sometimes, teens are hesitant to discuss certain personal issues with family members. Make it clear that, if that happens, there are mental health professionals they can turn too – trained people who are not part of the family, who will not judge, and who know how to listen and provide the guidance they need.

If your teen is diagnosed with a mental illness, make sure they follow through with treatment. Anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions are NOT signs of weakness nor a lack of mental or emotional strength. That is true for both teens with these conditions AND you as their parent. Think of mental health issues the same way you think of diabetes or asthma. Fortunately, we live in an era where all of these conditions can be treated. If your teen is diagnosed, dwelling on whether you are at fault is not helpful to you or your child. Instead, focus on ensuring that your teen receives the treatment they need from a qualified mental health practitioner. Avoiding treatment out of shame or fear of stigma allows mental health conditions to worsen and become harder to treat. In contrast, early intervention offers your teen access to the best possible outcomes and enables your child and your whole family a to avoid risks that come with untreated mental health conditions, including suicide.

Listen to your “gut.” Parents’ intuition is a thing! If you feel that your child is experience a crisis, or is at-risk for self-harm, reach out for help from a qualified mental health provider. In the best case scenario, the provider will tell you your teen is simply experiencing normal hormonal symptoms that go along with adolescence. Ultimately, it’s always best to know for sure.

“Some teens are at-risk for mental health conditions and even suicide.”

CFGC TIPS

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

For Parents of Teens Who May Be At-risk for Suicide:

FOR IMMEDIATE HELP

Call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at: 1-800-273-8255.

ATTEND A FREE TRAINING

Become an alert suicide prevention helper, email cnersessian@childguidance.org.

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Know what is going on in your teen’s life.