The Truth About Teen Suicide -- What Parents Should Watch Out For

One might think that suicide signals would be hard to miss. But sometimes, as in the case of Zack Toskovich from LHJ's March 2008 feature, the common signs are just not there. Read on to find out how to recognize and decipher the signals.
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Are There Warning Signs?

Sometimes you might see a big neon billboard amid a teen's chaotic emotional life that announces things are going poorly: Changes in eating and sleeping habits. Substance abuse. A waning interest in social activities. Withdrawal from friends and family members. Difficulty getting along with others. A decline in grades or a sudden generosity with possessions. An experience of negative setbacks or overreaction to relatively minor setbacks.

But sometimes not. "Suicide is not what people think -- there often are no warning signs," says Michael Bradley, psychologist and author of Yes! Your Teen Is Crazy and Yes! Your Parents Are Crazy . "An increasing number of suicides appear to be 'out-of-the-blue' suicides where they simply could not find any indications." He says 15 to 25 percent of adolescent suicides are without obvious warnings, but others put the figure as high as 50 percent. A child can look fine, can be president of the student council or a high-achieving athlete, can appear contented and well-adjusted, in a way that gives no indication of their inner turmoil.

"Adolescents are not small adults, they're large children, and we forget that," he says. "Ages 13-18 is where the real game of creating the adult is afoot, for this is when humans can actually begin to develop real values, beliefs, and codes of conduct. Consequently I argue that the most vital parenting years are not the first five, but the last."

Dr. David Shaffer, MD, professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, says this doesn't suggest that such suicides are nothing more than regrettable spontaneous acts. Usually, he says, an underlying -- but undetected -- psychiatric disorder was at play, whether it be anxiety disorder or other relatively common afflictions of adolescents, particularly what is being called "perfectionism," the excessive desire of the child to do well and please others.

Continued on page 2:  Identifying Perfectionism


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