The recent suicide of a has left many local parents feeling sad and worried that they might miss the signs that their child is in danger with substance abuse or suicidal. Tween and teens can be moody to begin with so what behavior is "normal" for this age? What is a possible "red flag" that the child and parent may need professional support?
What Red Flags Look Like
Lauren Hutchinson is an adolescent and family therapist and parenting consultant with a practice in Bellevue. She said that while moodiness is normal in tween or teens, watch for when the child is a bad mood. Most kids she observes will "perk up" around friends or participating in a favorite activity such as sports or art. But when a child is consistently withdrawn, isolating himself or herself socially and even verbalizing that he or she has "lost hope," these are red flags, Hutchinson explained. Kids can also experience a "trigger event" – a divorce, parent discord or bullying that can bring on depression. And she said, know your own family's history of depression, the risk of which, she says, can be passed from one generation to the next.
In more serious cases, tweens and teens who are suicidal will often display signs that they are contemplating taking their life. According to the Seattle-based Youth Suicide Prevention Program, watch for these signs, and the more you see, the greater the risk: a previous suicide attempt, current talk of suicide or making a plan, a strong wish to die or a preoccupation with death, giving away prized possessions, signs of depression such as moodiness, hopelessness and withdrawl, increased alcohol or drug use and hinting of not being around in the future.
According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, you should especially pay attention to these warning signs if your child has experienced a recent death or suicide of a friend or family member, a recent break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or conflict with parents and if there have been news reports of other suicides by young people in the same school or community.
Key risk factors for suicidal youth according to Youth Suicide Prevention Program include: readily-accessible firearms, impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks and a lack of connection to family and friends.
Don’t Dismiss the Warning Signs
Stephen Chick is a child and family therapist with Snoqualmie-based Mt. Si Counseling. He said that parents can make the mistake of dismissing a change of behavior in a child. Chick explained: "If they are more withdrawn, more irritable, asking more questions like 'what is it like to die' or making statements like 'I can’t handle this anymore' or 'My life is over,' parents are best off connecting with professional support immediately." Also, Chick said, "Don't dismiss concerns expressed by your child's friends or other caring adults about your child."
When the issue also involves drug or alcohol abuse, Chick added: "Be prepared for a child to deny it," to which the response should be "OK, let's go to the doctor and see if you can pass the drug test." An effective parent, he said, engages when a child is in trouble, as exhausting as that might be. "When you decline to engage, you are enabling the child," he said.
And parents have a duty to also express their concerns about friends of your child who may be in crises, but Chick said, be mindful of your child's relationship to his or her friend. A good way to begin is by asking your child "What is going on with your friend?" and asking your child to give his or her impression and what he or she thinks the next step should be. If the situation is serious enough, Chick said, "Contact the child's parents but ask that they keep it confidential so that your child does not lose that friendship – further isolating the child in crises."
The Good News About Depression and Suicide Prevention
The good news is "Depression is very treatable," Hutchinson said. But it is very important, she said, that parents do not wait to enlist professional support early for a child that is showing changes in behavior or mood. "Don't minimize the warning signs."
And luckily for Eastside parents, there is an abundance of resources for families who are worried about their child's well being, including Redmond's Friends of Youth and Bellevue's . There are also private counselors who specialize in adolescents in crises. To find an effective counselor, Hutchinson explained, get a referral from a school counselor or an agency like Friends of Youth, and make sure that the counselor has experience with working with tweens and teens.
In Sammamish, Hutchinson also recommends the Sammamish Plateau Parent Networking Group as a source of support for parents. The group is offering a series of classes for parents of challenged tweens and teens. The next class will be Monday, April 25. For more information and to register, contact Cherry O’ Neill, co-founder of the group, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-550-3809.