An in-depth look at what factors may cause a teen to commit suicide.
After Bobby died by suicide at age sixteen, his parents and friends could not stop wondering why he had done it. They agonized over what had caused him to feel so hopeless. Questions raced through their minds at all hours of the day and night. What had triggered such a strong reaction? Why did he no longer want to live? What could we have done differently? What was going through Bobby’s mind? Why do teens commit suicide at all? And what teen suicide prevention measures could they have used?
There is no clear-cut or simple answer as to why teens commit suicide. There is rarely a simple cause to a teen making this choice. However, there are things that can begin to add up over time that can make a teenager susceptible to suicide. Let’s take a look at some of the things that may lead up to a teen committing suicide, and steps toward teen suicide prevention you can take if you believe your child may be considering suicide.
The Powder Keg
Imagine a mighty wooden ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1750s. A cool sea breeze blows over the sailors as they work to keep the ship on course toward its destination and the sun shines warmly on their backs. On the surface, everything appears to be smooth sailing. However, no one realizes that down in the cargo hold, a candle has tipped over during the last storm. While no other damage was done, the sparks ignited the tail end of a fuse that is attached to a barrel of gunpowder. When the fuse burns down, the barrel and the ship carrying it will violently explode.
Suicide is very similar to that powder keg. Many people say after a suicide has happened that they never saw it coming. However, just because you can’t hear the fuse doesn’t mean it isn’t there and burning down. There is usually a powder keg of some sort involved in a teen’s decision to commit suicide.
In our lives, we have matches that light up all the time in the form of challenges and difficulties. However, most people are adept at handling them in healthy and safe ways. What makes teens more susceptible to the sparks that fall out from those daily matches that are lit around them?
What Makes a Teen More Susceptible to Suicide?
There is no list that outlines how prone a teenager may be to suicide. However, there are a few common risk factors that tend to increase their tendency toward suicide:
- Attachment issues in early childhood
- Childhood trauma
- Learning disabilities
- Developmental delays
- Mental health issues.
While these risk factors don’t mean that a teen will commit suicide, our children may have learned unhealthy coping mechanisms as they faced those challenges. Our teens can become even more vulnerable as they are exposed to:
- Peer pressure
- Cultural messages
- Social Media and Cell Phone Use
A child’s early years are spent drawing conclusions about themselves, others, God, and the world around them. The Bible tells us to “know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). When there are deficits in their belief systems and thinking, teens can easily be drawn down the path of despair and become more susceptible to suicide.
Insight Into a Teen’s Brain
With teens, more than any other age group, suicide is usually an impulsive act. Teenagers tend to be more impulsive because the prefrontal cortex in their brain is not fully developed and does not become fully developed until around the age of twenty-five. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher processing skills such as logic and reasoning. Since that region of the brain is not yet fully developed at this age, it doesn’t consistently process information properly and therefore teenagers jump to more impulsive acts. When this happens, teens move from their “upstairs brain” to their “downstairs” brain.
The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain
In their book The Whole-Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson describe a person’s brain in terms of a two-story house. Like the house, the brain has an upstairs and a downstairs area. The upstairs brain is the location where a person’s thinking, processing, logic, and analysis take place. The downstairs brain is where a person’s fight or flight response resides. Reasoning doesn’t happen in the downstairs brain, only reaction.
The upstairs brain has the ability to override unnecessary fight or flight responses that pop up in our daily circumstances and tempers the downstairs brain’s activity. However, if the upstairs brain isn’t fully developed, there can be figurative holes in the house’s floor. When a teenager is feeling trapped, they can drop right through and into the downstairs brain.
For example, a teenager is rejected by someone on social media. When thinking rationally, we know that rejection shouldn’t be a reason for a person to commit suicide. However, for a teenager, the downstairs brain almost immediately kicks in and provides an irrational response that overrides rational thinking. This could cause a teenager to think, “There’s no way I can continue living because I’ve been snubbed on Instagram.”
The Life and Death of Brain Cells
In his book Saving the Brain, Victor Hoff describes events that destroy brain cells. These things include:
- High levels of stress
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
If these things are present while a person’s brain is developing, they wreak havoc on the person’s upstairs brain. When the upstairs brain has damage or deficits, it increases the opportunities for a person to react with their downstairs brain.
Brain cells can be rebuilt if these issues are dealt with. However, it is far more difficult to rebuild brain cells than it is to destroy them. If your teenager is struggling with any of these issues, acknowledge them and be intentional about getting them help to overcome them. Facing these issues together is key for teen suicide prevention.
A Cultural Impact
Not only are our teens more impulsive since their brains are not fully developed, but our culture has taught our teens to be impulsive. Teens are taught that they need to find the easiest and fastest way to solve a problem and have their needs met. Unfortunately, one reason why teens commit suicide is that it’s a “quick fix.”
Here are some ways that the culture may impact teens, making them more susceptible to suicide.
1. What I Deserve
Today’s culture teaches that we don’t deserve to feel pain or have hurt in our lives; that we deserve an easy life with all its benefits. Teens tend to buy into this mentality and tend to start describing their lives in terms of what they should or shouldn’t have. For example, they may think, “I should get an A on my test” or “I shouldn’t have to work so hard.” These statements often aren’t accurate to how life operates and can lead to sharp disappointment and a tendency to not take responsibility for one’s own actions.
2. A Sense of Anger
When life isn’t going the way a teenager thinks it should, a teen might get angry. Boys tend to experience anger far more often than girls. Sometimes a teen will choose to commit suicide as a way to punish someone or as a way to get back at someone. However, it really takes a lot of anger for a teen to override their survival instincts to commit suicide.
3. Media’s Impact
Teens have constant access to the news. It’s everywhere: on the TV, the Internet, and even the phones they carry in their pockets. Bad news is thrown in their faces constantly. Many years ago, when all we had was the news, newspaper, and phone, the way we processed bad news wasn’t constant or real-time.
After the terror attacks of September 11, media teams discovered that they were traumatizing people who hadn’t even been on the scene by repeatedly showing images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. After realizing this, several days later, they stopped showing the images. However, this same phenomenon is occurring with our kids today. The constant bombardment of images and videos is impacting our kids.
Unfortunately, the news neglects the good things that happen all the time. Seeing so much negative news and none of the good skews our teens’ views of the world. They begin to think, “If this world is so rotten, why would I want to live in it?”
It is a constant battle for parents to raise kids with a hopeful perspective. The Bible instructs us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Doing this will help our teens remain optimistic in their perspectives.
4. Glorifying Violence
Our culture glorifies a sense of violence toward ourselves and others. We so often forget that everything that touches our senses has a permanent impact. Video games, movies, television, and music all can skew our teens’ perspectives on how to handle life’s challenges. When they are repeatedly exposed to violence, it diminishes their reaction to it and they become numb and desensitized. Feeling numb to violence and death makes them more likely to commit suicide.
5. Virtual Environments and Reality
Interactions with others are increasingly virtual and occur online. This has become especially true during the coronavirus pandemic. Increasing use of technology such as photoshop and video editing software allows people to showcase a different version of reality. False news quickly muddies the waters. Teens can easily begin to wonder what is real. They may begin to question if death is real, and that disconnect may make them more prone to suicide.
Anxiety can develop in our teens in several ways. During the coronavirus pandemic, reported cases of anxiety and the use of anti-depressants have increased 34% in the United States.
Teens also face a tremendous amount of pressure to make decisions about their future. Anxiety is future-focused and can be sparked by “what-if” questions surrounding that future. Teens are in a position where they have to start thinking about whether want to attend college, what college they’re going to attend, how they’re going to afford it, where they are going to live, and what career they want to have. There is a lot of pressure on teens to make a perfect choice, the first time. There is often no room for trial and error, exploration, or mistakes. This pressure to be perfect and make the right choices can send anxiety spiraling out of control for our teens. That anxiety starts to destroy their brain cells and makes them more reactive than rational in their choices.
While this is not a conclusive list of things that may make a teen susceptible to suicide, these may be matches that light the powder keg’s fuse. Be aware of these risk factors in your teen’s life and be proactive if you see any of them getting out of control. Being aware and responding appropriately is key to teen suicide prevention. But how do you know when a teenager is serious about committing suicide?
Suicidal thoughts are normal and are common for teenagers, so don’t panic if you discover your teen is having these thoughts. You may hear them say, “I don’t want to live.” However, it’s far less common to hear, “I want to kill myself.” If you hear them using those words, and see any of the following signs, get help right away.
S – Specific Plan (Does my teenager have a specific plan to kill themselves?)
L – Lethality (Is that plan lethal?)
A – Availability (Is that method available and accessible to my teenager?)
P – Proximity to People (Is my teen alone a lot? (Teens will rarely commit suicide around other people.))
Parents, deal with your teen’s past trauma. Deal with their depression and anxiety. Don’t sweep these things under the rug. Moderate how much time your kids are spending with media, and what they’re watching and interacting with. All these things are pieces to the puzzle of teen suicide prevention.
Be intentional about taking an honest look at your kids. This requires being really tuned in to each kid individually and discovering their needs, challenges, frustrations, and emotions. It doesn’t matter what you have done as a parent in the past, but it does matter what you do going forward. Make amends now and take steps to get your teen help now. Have the courage to face the truth of what your teen may be dealing with and face it together. It takes intentionality as a parent and investment in your teen to do this, but it may save their life.
Final Thoughts on Why Teens Commit Suicide
Parents usually want to find and blame the one thing that caused their son or daughter to commit suicide. However, it’s rarely ever one thing that causes them to make that choice. It is a very complex, complicated, and multilayered thing that causes a person to push past their normal survival instincts and commit suicide.
Parents who survive a child’s suicide also tend to blame themselves. It’s important to recognize that sometimes parents do everything right, and still lose a child to suicide. Sometimes parents really do have an impact on their child’s progression toward that choice. If you are in this boat, no matter which boat you are in, remember that it doesn’t help to blame yourself as a parent.
Whether you are a parent helping your teenager to prevent suicide, or you’ve lost your teenager to suicide, find a community, and gather them close around you. You may find that this community is people in the church, friends, or other parents who have faced the same challenges. Keep a close connection with safe people and walk on this journey with others. Remember that you are not alone.
© 2021 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.
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