The recent has left many local parents feeling sad and worried that they might miss signs that their child is in danger with substance abuse or suicidal. Young adolescents are notoriously moody to begin with, so what behavior is normal for this age and 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 says that although moodiness is normal in teenagers and pre-teens, parents should pay attention to what happens when the child is in a bad mood. Most kids she observes will “perk up” around friends or when participating in a favorite activity such as sports or art.
But a child who is consistently withdrawn, isolates themselves socially or verbalizes they have “lost hope," should be more of a concern, Hutchinson said. Kids can also experience a “trigger event” — a divorce, parent discord or bullying incident that can bring on depression. It's also helpful, she said, to know your own family’s history of depression, the risk for which can be passed from one generation to the next.
In more serious cases, young people who are suicidal will often display signs that they are contemplating taking their life. According to the Seattle-based Youth Suicide Prevention program, parents should watch for these signs: a previous suicide attempt, current talk of suicide or making a plan, strong wish to die or a preoccupation with death, hinting that he or she won't be around in the future, giving away prized possessions, and signs of depression, such as moodiness, hopelessness and withdrawal, and increased alcohol or drug use.
Youth Suicide Prevention advises parents to pay special attention to these warning signs if the adolescent 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 other suicides by young people in the same school or community.
Key risk factors for suicidal youth, according to Youth Suicide Prevention, include readily accessible firearms, a tendency for 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 parents can make the mistake of dismissing a change of behavior in their children.
“If they are more withdrawn, more irritable, asking more questions like 'what is it like to die?'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," Chick said. Finally, 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 said parents should be prepared for their children 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, Chick 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.
Parents also have a duty to also express concerns about friends of their children who may be in crises, but Chick advises them to be mindful of the child’s relationship to his or her friend.
A good way to begin is by asking your child what's going on with his or her friend and asking your child what he or she thinks should be done next. If the situation is serious enough, Chick said, reach out to the child’s parents but ask that they keep the source of the information confidential so that neither child becomes upset.
The Good News About Depression and Suicide Prevention
The good news is that “depression is very treatable," Hutchinson said. Even so, she said it is very important that parents do not wait to enlist professional support for a child that is showing changes in behavior or mood.
“Don’t minimize the warning signs," Hutchinson said.
Eastside parents who are worried about a child's well-being have an abundance of resources, 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 advises parents to get a referral from a school counselor or an agency like , and make sure that the counselor has experience with working with teens and pre-teens.