It is so hard to understand why a teenager with so much life ahead of them would decide to commit suicide. Teenagers are naturally self-centered, self-focused and oriented only to what is happening right now, today. Their brains are not fully developed and it is a healthy, albeit, challenging time when the shift in the brain during the teenage years becomes totally self-absorbed. Why is this knowledge important when it comes to suicide? It is important because teens do not think with forethought. They think about today. Therefore if it today is bad, that means life is bad. If “life” is bad this feels like forever, so what is the point in living?
3 Developmental Tasks which Can Push Some Teens over the Edge
1. Fitting in: Having a sense of belonging is fundamental to our basic needs in life. We all desire to feel a sense of community. In the teenage years, family becomes less important as teens turn to friends as the people they confide in and depend upon. Therefore, fitting in, having the right look, the right hair, the right peer group are all pressures unique to the teenager which feel like life-and-death situations. Their image becomes of the utmost importance to their ideas of fitting in. When a teen has a difficult time fitting in they often feel isolated alone and helpless.
These times are normal for all teens, but some take it to the next level. As parents, adults or educators we must be looking for the signs which make some teens more severe in their sense of hopelessness than others. When teens self-harm, start to isolate, stop wanting to go to school or hang out with friends are some of the first clues to intervene.
The family is, of course, for the teen, not what makes them feel important or like they fit in but in the case of suicide if a teen knows 100% that they are loved unconditionally at home, they have a sense of emotional support and someone to talk to. It may not fix their problem in terms of fitting in but they still have an important place to belong.
2. Increased responsibility: Along with the fact that teens are separating from family and becoming more independent, they are also increasing in their responsibilities. Friendships become more intense, many begin having sex, they are able to drive, balance money, get jobs and they start to think seriously about their future in terms of grades, college etc.
Sometimes these responsibilities are too much for their maturity level and they get overwhelmed and dip into the black-and-white irrational thinking of “I am stupid,” “I am ugly”, “I am unlovable,” “I am not smart enough,” “I can’t do it,” and they feel like an overall disappointment and failure. Teens may keep these feelings inside and tell no one, which is the most dangerous way to handle these pressures. Feelings are meant to be temporary, not internally harbored and perseverated on. The more privately emotions are suppressed the more they grow in their power and distortion leading some teens to the brink of what they can tolerate emotionally.
If you see your teen feeling or looking exhausted but they telling you they are fine, pay attention to your gut as a parent and analyze where you think they may be struggling. Offer listening, understanding, love and help. Sometimes the best way to talk to a teenager is not face-to-face but shoulder-to-shoulder. Play a game with them, drive with them, go on a hike, a walk a bike ride etc. Teens tend to open up when they feel they are not being directly focused on.
3. Developing identity: “Who am I?” This is perhaps the biggest developmental task that begins during the teenage years and lasts up twenty five. Teens have the task to start deciding who they are, what they want to be when they grow up, and what makes a person good, bad, popular, pretty, ugly, likable, unlikable, successful and good enough for the world at large. Teens often behave as if they have multiple personality disorder for a few years and you, as a parent, never know what you’re going to get when they come home: well, neither do they.
The task of developing identity has become even more challenging for our teens with the never ending break from the stream of social media, and from the world of selfies and the trap of comparison. It is harder now for our teens to find themselves internally because the external world of beauty has become so narcissistic.
To help them develop their internal strength and wisdom, as parents, we have to help them to know the value of happiness as it relates to hard work, having someone to love, having something to do and things in the future to look forward to. If we parent correctly, we are present as strong models of good character. We discipline firmly but also allow them some freedoms and we see their mistakes as their wisdom teachers and parent them to be strong in loving themselves. Our teens learn to love themselves by how we love them as parents.
The kinds of problems that teenagers face may be different from those of adults, but the problems are very real to the teens that are facing them. As you reflect back on how you grew into your adulthood, you see that you slowly learned you had control of most things that happened in your life. Through experience, you gained the wisdom and the tools necessary to solve your problems to the best of your ability. However, think back on those times when you felt completely overwhelmed and hopeless during your teenage years.
For teenagers, sometimes their overwhelming hopelessness is enough to cause them to take their own lives. Most teens who survive suicide attempts say that they tried to kill themselves because they were trying to escape a situation that seemed impossible to deal with, or they were trying to escape overwhelming feelings of rejection, guilt, anger, or sadness. We need to parent them to have courage, to be human and to allow mistakes. We need to parent them with love, kindness and boundaries. Most importantly we need to make sure we know them as deeply as we can so we can sense when things are off.