It can be especially hard for adults to understand why a child or teen would take their own life. After all, it seems like they have everything going for them. When we think of youth, we think of youthful beauty and exuberance, of someone blessed with so much promise for the future. So it appears especially senseless for someone with their entire life ahead of them to give it all up so soon, particularly for reasons that can seem frivolous or so easily overcome. Unfortunately, these are not the same things a suicidal youth sees.
The reasons teens commit suicide
When it comes to the reasons for why people kill themselves, there are many unique challenges teens face that can cause them to struggle with suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
Their self-identity is in flux
Adolescents are at a very vulnerable stage in their lives. They feel displaced . . . no longer a child, not yet an adult. As part of a natural developmental stage on their path to maturity, adolescents are driven to separate themselves and pull away from the adults they relied on throughout childhood, replacing this supplanted human connection with the support and approval of peers. So teens are left in a mad scramble to shed an identity that revolved around parent approval and replace it with a self-identity that revolves around their peer groups.
During this tumultuous time, there are a lot of opportunities for things to go terribly wrong. Such a change is tough on everyone, but for adolescents who really struggle to find a place where they feel they fit in, the alienation and anguish this causes can seem unbearable. As Slaby & Garfinkel write, “the overwhelming and innate desire to be liked, to be loved, to be touched, can lead to despair if they can’t find anyone who truly understands them.”
Uncertainty about the future
Too often teens misinterpret the pain they are experiencing as a sure sign of what their life will be like in the years to come. Most are coming from a childhood in which things went relatively smoothly. They were reasonably protected and shielded from major difficulties. Sure there were setbacks, sadness, even trauma, but their place in life was stable. They were well loved and good about where they belonged. Now their world is in turmoil, and rather than seeing their struggles as part of a rough transition, they see them as part of the ‘new normal.’
Lacking experience, they view their current difficulties out of perspective. The newly introduced struggles they face have yet to be resolved, and so teens begin to think that they never will be. An episode of depression can be unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, and so they mistake such despair as being a permanent aspect of what awaits them as adults. This lack of perspective that might otherwise come from experience clouds their judgment about how serious the situation really is, making their problems seem more intractable than they actually are
Unrealistic or demanding expectations
Teens are often their own worst critic. They expect to take the world by storm, and when this doesn’t happen, they can be extremely hard on themselves. It’s noted that this type of perfectionist attitude “is a common thread among suicidal adolescents. They must be ‘all’ or they are nothing. This demanding, uncompromising attitude becomes a setup for their own perceived failure, depression, and sense of hopelessness. …they often exaggerate or distort some specific shortcoming, difference, or problem they are experiencing. This creates an overwhelming burden that becomes the rationale for choosing suicide as a solution to their problems.” (Slaby & Garfinkel, 1994, pp. 50, 156)
Part of this attitude traces back to the youthful optimism that can be both asset and liability. In a child’s early years, the future was a simple matter of deciding who you were going to marry and what you wanted to be when you grew up…astronaut or firefighter, or if the choice was too difficult, then perhaps a firefighting astronaut. Then adolescence arrives, and teens find out that attaining their ideals is not as simple as choosing cakes at a buffet. Those you desire may not always desire you back, and with the greater freedom to act upon our own behalf comes the cold reality that our efforts don’t always lead to the outcomes envisioned.
Many teens become stuck in this contradiction between their ideal self and the reality they experience. The optimism of youth which says the stars are supposed to align if only you try hard and do your best becomes the high platform from which they repeatedly fall from. Especially among the most tenacious teens, it fuels a perfectionist attitude. They feel they are supposed to accomplish this or that or attain a certain degree of success, and if they don’t, then it’s entirely their own fault.
A personal life crisis
Kevin Ryan (2007) notes that “suicides among adolescents are often proceeded by some kind of recent crisis. This crisis could be an argument with family members, a break-up of a relationship, an arrest, or some other type of sudden problem. Especially in the case of males, the crisis may be very recent, often less than 24 hours before the suicide. Adolescents were five times as likely as others to have had some type of ‘relationship problem,’ usually a conflict with family members.” (p. 6)
The crisis in life that leads kids into a suicide attempt can be as varied as the teens themselves. It may be something that only recently occurred, or it may be a recent event that aggravates a festering wound and pushes a teen towards suicide. Here are some examples of the different things that can drive a youth to suicide:
- A teen attempts to kill himself because he’s the shortest kid in the class, struggles with girls, and after a recent rejection doesn’t think any girls could ever like him because of his height.
- A girl who fears she might be pregnant kills herself after her boyfriend breaks up with her.
- A girl who is pregnant decides to commit suicide rather than face the scorn of her parents and the possibility that they may kick her out of the house.
- A boy has been distressed for years, secretly struggling with homosexual thoughts. During a camping trip with friends, he comes on to a boy he likes, who rejects his advances. Humiliated and too insecure to withstand this experience, he commits suicide.
- An insecure and unpopular boy asks out a popular girl he likes at school, who in turn rejects his offer in a humiliating way: “Are you kidding? Does it look like I date losers like you?” Having spent weeks working up the courage to expose himself and make himself vulnerable only to have his heart shredded and handed back to him, he goes home and hangs himself.
- An awkward teen that for years has struggled with a sense that he doesn’t belong does something or says something that inspires a particularly brutal episode of mocking from his peers. Convinced he will never fit in, he commits suicide.
- A 13-year-old girl develops a relationship with what she thinks is a 13-year-old boy, who is in fact an imaginary profile created by another girl to try and humiliate the victim. After tricking the girl into thinking that she was in love, the other girl (acting as the fake boy) insults the victim and tells the girl who thinks she’s in love he never wants to talk to her again, thus driving the girl to suicide.
Slaby & Garfinkel point out that “parents and friends will say, ‘Losing his girlfriend should not have been such a monumental experience; there are so many more fish in the sea.’” (1994, p. 157) But it’s important to remember that teens are seeing the situation through the cognitive limitations discussed earlier. A first love can feel like your only love, a string of failures can be seen as a sign of things to come, and a significant obstacle to your life plan (such as pregnancy) can seem insurmountable. Injuries that might otherwise be taken in stride by a more secure psyche can shred the soul of an insecure teen. Adults must be sensitive towards the child’s view of the crisis and not get caught up in their own interpretation of things.