The Four Winds Blog

Suicide Awareness: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention & Intervention

By Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy. D.

There is perhaps nothing more devastating than losing a child.  It is notable that in New York State suicide is the number one cause of injury or death for children ages 10-14 and the fourth cause for children ages 15-19.  Teen boys are more likely to die by suicide than girls, while girls are more likely to make suicide attempts.  In contrast, boys are less likely to seek help than girls and more likely to use fatal methods when attempting suicide including: firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights.

Sometimes it is the subtle shifts in behavior or appearance that suggests that a child is feeling overwhelmed.  Tweens and teens are at greatest risk for suicide after a traumatic and/or stressful life event.  The difficulty for parents lies in recognizing that an event has had such an impact on your child.  For example, a recent break-up with a girlfriend may affect one teen more than another.  What follows is a list of signs and symptoms that suggest a child may require support and outside assessment and intervention from a counseling professional.  Although each of these indicators taken individually may not mean a child is having thoughts of suicide, each one is a red flag signifying that further evaluation is needed:

  • Talking, thinking, writing, and/or drawing about death, dying or the afterlife.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Helplessness and/or hopelessness about one’s life or life in general. For example, questioning the purpose of life.
  • Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly.
  • Social isolation; withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Overwhelming feelings of grief, anxiety, guilt, and/or shame.
  • A lack of motivation.  For example, failure to complete homework, withdrawal in class, or withdrawal from other outside activities.
  • Lack of interest in outside activities and interests.
  • Uncontrolled anger, irritability and/or agitation.
  • Engaging in high-risk and self-destructive behavior.
  • Unpredictable, bizarre, and/or violent behavior.
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.

It can be easy to miss the signs that a tween or teen is contemplating suicide. The following is a list of behaviors that may suggest a child has a plan:

  • Talk about killing or hurting self.
  • Writing a suicide note and/or posting suicidal content on social media and/or live journals.
  • Noticeable change in personality. For example, a depressed teen suddenly seems happy and chipper.
  • Change in physical appearance.  For example, a teen stops showering and/or changing clothes.
  • Giving away or offering to give away valuable possessions to friends and/or family.
  • Talking as if he or she will not be around soon.
  • Trying to obtain a weapon, pills, or other item associated with killing oneself.

It can be difficult for a parent to realize that a child is suffering so much that suicide has become a serious consideration.  Quite often it is the subtle signs that offer the most insight.  When it comes to concerns about suicide, parents are always best served erring on the side of caution.  While direct communication between parent and child is paramount, it is also important to realize that quite often tweens and teens try to shield their parents from the pain they are experiencing.  The best course of action for a parent who is worried about their child’s safety is to seek help from a mental health professional who can provide both assessment and intervention.

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