Parenting Adolescents — 19 April 2010
The tragedy of an adolescent’s suicide

The loss of life at any age is traumatic enough. Suicide of a teenager is a deep loss to the family and society and evokes great pain and bewilderment for all. A self- inflicted volitional termination of a young life is truly tragic.

A 2008 report by The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported: “Suicides among young people continue to be a serious problem. Each year in the U.S. thousands of teenagers commit suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5-to-14 year olds.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that during 12 months of 2007 among high school students in the United States; 18.7% of females and 10,3% of males considered suicide, 13.4% of girls and 9.2% of boys planned suicide and 9.3% of girls and 4.6% of boys attempted suicide.

Adolescence is a very difficult period of life in which youngsters attempt to individuate and separate from their families, while their skills, self-esteem and functional capacities are not yet fully matured. As they try to define their uniqueness and personal life path, they are still reliant upon their parents view of them for their self-esteem and need guidance prior to embarking on their own life. Teenagers also feel enormous pressures for achievement and approval that collide with their search for full autonomy.

Clarice J. Kestenbaum in “Self-Esteem in Adolescence: Past Failures and Future Consequences” clarifies the process of adolescents’ quest for self identity while, “the adolescent judges herself according to how she believes she is perceived by others.” “Many teenagers simply give up trying when lowered self-esteem interferes with motivation to achieve in the academic, athletic, or social sphere.”
Depression in adolescence is an outcome of the dissonance between what is expected of them, their emotional capacity to conform to these demands, their need to belong and be valued and their internal pull towards slowing the process, enjoying, relaxing and being more carefree.
In his book “Suicide–The Ultimate Rejection? A Psycho-Social Study” Colin Pritchard explains, “The key characteristic of adolescents is that relatively they respond to the immediate present with great intensity of delight or despair.” He details how adults tend to attribute these emotions to the developmental passage and thus sometimes miss identifying depression and the call for help.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry provides a list of signs of adolescents who may try to kill themselves: “Change in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities, neglect of personal appearance, violent actions, drugs and alcohol use, marked personality change, persistent boredom, difficulties concentrating, decline in the quality of schoolwork, frequent physical complaints, loss of interest in pleasurable activities and not tolerating praise or rewards.”

“A teenager who is planning to commit suicide may also: complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside, give verbal hints with statement such as: I won’t be a problem for you much longer, nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again, put his affairs in order, for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc., become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression, have signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)”

Though parents, teachers, siblings, peers or others are not responsible for the adolescent’s suicide, they are often tormented by the notion that they should have known and thus prevented the tragic loss.

Many bereaved parents never heard any of the above statements and are left to wonder, grieve and suffer the loss of a precious teen, who could not see beyond the pain towards the happy life that awaited him/her. The loss is tragic and the pain prolonged and torturous. Yet, please learn from your adolescent that enduring the pain for now is likely to support your long-term resiliency in life toward a clearer path.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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