5 Teen Suicide Warning Signs to Look Out For

By: Julia Layton

The phase between childhood and adulthood can be difficult to navigate.
The phase between childhood and adulthood can be difficult to navigate.

It's no secret that parenting a teenager can be a hand-wringing experience. The phase between childhood and adulthood can be difficult to navigate, and for some teens, it can seem unmanageable. Thousands of teens every year commit suicide, sometimes, as we've seen from recent media coverage, in response to bullying. Mental illness, extreme stress or pressure, social problems, family problems or academic failure can also play a role.

It can be difficult to predict which teens will end up having thoughts of suicide, but there are some well-established warning signs that can give some indication there might be a problem that requires intervention (especially if you see more than one). Here, five of the warning signs that could mean your teen needs your help.


First: isolation …

5: Withdrawal

Marked withdrawal from family, friends and activities is a possible indicator that something is wrong. If your teen is spending more and more time alone, avoiding contact with family and friends and skipping activities he or she once took pleasure in, ask about it.

There may be a specific problem that needs addressing, or it could tell you your teen is feeling depressed and alone, a state of mind that lends itself to thoughts of suicide. Letting your teen know you see and care can help alleviate that sense of isolation, and it's an opening to raise the possibility of seeking professional help.


Next: drug and alcohol abuse …

4: Substance Abuse

While "experimentation" during the teenage years can be a fairly normal rite of adolescence, it can also, in some cases, mean there is something very wrong.

If your child is getting drunk or high on drugs on a regular basis, or you notice your prescription drugs have gone missing (check them!), don't ignore it. Yes, it could be a case of teenage rebellion that uneventfully runs its course. It could also be a sign of depression and self-destructive tendencies and a blaring cry for help. If it's the latter, your teen needs you to step in.


Next: falling grades …

3: Decline in School Performance

If your teen experiences a sudden decline in grades or general academic performance, pay attention.
If your teen experiences a sudden decline in grades or general academic performance, pay attention.

A marked slip in academic performance can indicate any number of things -- loss of interest, being "stressed out," a sense of futility like nothing matters, or just being unable to keep up with a rigorous schedule -- any of which can indicate a bigger problem.

If your teen experiences a sudden decline in grades or general academic performance (skipping school, missing deadlines, neglecting "extra credit" when he or she once sought it out), hold off on the disciplinary action, and pay attention. Does he or she seem sad, depressed or angry? Just out of it? Rather than a punishment, your teen might need your understanding and support.


Next: when the basics change …

2: Changes in Routine

There are certain behaviors that, for most people, typically stay within a baseline range. Things like eating, sleeping and personal-hygiene practices tend not to vary dramatically day to day or week to week within a single stage of life.

If you notice your teen is suddenly sleeping much more or much less than usual, eating much more or much less than usual, neglecting basic hygiene like washing up and putting on clean clothes or showing a complete lack of interest in personal appearance, be on alert. These changes can indicate a mental disturbance that requires attention.


Finally, the most clear (but often ignored) indicator of suicidal thoughts …

1: Focus on Death/Meaninglessness

Watch, listen and act.
Watch, listen and act.

Teenagers are known for being a bit, well, dramatic. And even, sometimes, dark -- adolescence is a confusing period of development that can invite a heightening of the existential dilemma most of us experience at one time or another.

But the worst thing you can do is chalk up expressions like "life is meaningless" or "nothing matters" to mere teenage musings or, worse, brush off "I wish I were dead" as a passing phase. These might be flat-out cries for help that indicate a serious issue, and the best thing to do is take them seriously, talk to your child and, if you deem it necessary, call a mental health professional.


When parenting a teenager, it's helpful to keep in mind that the teenage brain is not like the adult brain. Their judgment is hampered by chemical changes that, by adulthood, are stabilized, so just because something seems silly or small to you doesn't mean it is to your child.

So watch, listen and act: You may find out these thoughts and behaviors are, in fact, in the "normal" range and not warning signs of real problem, and you can back off a bit. Or you may find out your teen was on a self-destructive path and you stepped in just in time. It's a win-win for everyone.

Call (800) SUICIDE for advice or information if you think your teen may be in trouble.

For more information on teen suicide and other mental-health issues, look over the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

  • About Teen Suicide. Kids Health. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://aacap.org/cs/forFamilies
  • Facts for Families: Teen Suicide. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Teen+Suicide&section=Facts+for+Families
  • Teen Suicide. The Ohio State University Medical Center. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/mental_health/mental_health_about/children/suicide/Pages/index.aspx