Teenagers are impulsive. We know that. There is ample evidence and brain science that confirms it. And while educators and psychologists and physicians are encouraging parents to learn about behavior management and help their teens learn how to take healthy risks, one conversation we don’t often have with our teens concerns impulsivity and suicide. It may well be the most important conversation we aren’t having with our teens.
Suicide is complicated and multifaceted. It is incredibly difficult to know exactly why people choose suicide because of the individual circumstances and the relatively minuscule understanding we have of the human brain and emotions. Even when there are signs or someone leaves a note, it can often be hard for the other people in that person’s life to truly comprehend why an individual made such a choice. And one of the things we can do as parents and caregivers is to have honest conversations with teens about depression, anxiety and suicide. One way to enter in to this dialogue is by teaching adolescents what we do know about how emotions affect perspective, and how important it is to remember that what is happening in this moment is not indicative of the future.
There are four important things that teens need to know about the way their brains work. These four things can help them give their emotional life some context and may well go a long way toward helping mitigate some of their most painful, darkest moments.
First, the human brain does not have fully formed logic circuits until around the age of 25. That is how long it takes for the pre-frontal cortex to develop completely and come “on-line.”
Further complicating things is the fact that the emotion center of the brain – the amygdala – is on overdrive between the ages of 11 and 21, meaning that nearly every thought an adolescent has goes through an emotional filter before ever even getting close to being rationalized. (This is why your teen can come into the kitchen in the morning, see a distracted look on your face, assume it’s a frown, and instantly burst into tears because she thinks you hate the outfit she chose for today.)
Third, every adolescent is the center of their own universe. Don’t tell me you haven’t ever called your teen a little narcissist. I know you have. They are wired to think about themselves first, to process every experience in terms of how it will impact them, and to ruminate on it.
Finally, adolescent brains are much more susceptible to dopamine which means that taking risks is far more rewarding during these years than it ever has been. The highs feel higher and the lows feel lower. All of these things add up to disaster for teens who are feeling isolated or angry or depressed, even momentarily, because they create the perfect setting for impulsive behavior.
Statistics show that the rate of suicide among American adolescents is steadily rising and while we absolutely need to investigate and address root causes, we also need to understand that the nature of the teenage brain makes it more likely that they will act without reaching out for help if they are feeling really low.
I read a short essay after Soundgarden’s lead singer Chris Cornell was found dead of an apparent suicide that introduced me to something called “chemical suicide.” The author noted that these suicides often occur with people who seem to have it all, who are in a good place one day and suddenly are gone the next. For people whose emotions run hot and cold, who are intensely sensitive and who have struggled with depression or anxiety, there can be a seemingly inexplicable shift in thoughts that lead them to consider such an act and, if they have the means at their disposal and the tendency to be impulsive, it’s a dangerous combination. Interviews with individuals who have tried and failed to complete suicide tell us that often, once they begin the act, they immediately regret it. So what does this mean for parents of adolescents?
What it means to me is three things:
1. I need to help my daughters understand how powerful their own brain chemistry is. I need to have many, many conversations with them about how their brains work, the effect of hormones and chemicals on their emotions, and remind them that emotions are fleeting if we let them go and our thoughts are not facts. I need to give them opportunities to note that things that felt intensely painful or sad one night were not permanent once they passed and were put into context a day or two or three later. I need to help them see that impulsivity is normal but not necessary – that they have the ability to wait and decide whether something is worth the risk or not, and that they have a tribe of loving elders around them who will give them perspective and input without judgment.
2. I need to help my daughters create a plan, a narrative that is seared into their brains, a different voice for the times when the dark voice is telling them that things are awful, that everyone hates them or they’re ugly or useless or unpopular. That voice will remind them that thoughts are not facts, that there are people around them who understand, that true power does not come from reacting, but from living in alignment with their true nature. We need to flesh out that plan with specific phrases to use and a list of trusted allies who will affirm their place in this world, and we need to practice it. I need to encourage them to practice it after a fight with a good friend, or a breakup with a partner, or even when it’s just been a crappy day. I need to embed that reminder into their brains that they are loved and that this other voice they’re hearing is lying to them and isn’t to be trusted.
3. We need to pay attention to the good in our lives. I mean, really pay attention. We need to stop and remark on the unseasonably warm weather or the really delicious meal we’ve just eaten. We need to laugh out loud together and commit to finding some joy in every day. We need to cement our ties with our friends and family who support us so that we never question whether we are loved and cherished. We need to lay down happiness circuits in our brains that become superhighways so that if and when the dark moments come, we can remember that there’s an alternative.
The beauty of the adolescent brain is how malleable it is, how trainable. During the years between 11 and 21, there is an active effort to build the pathways to resilience that will serve us in decades to come and set the stage for our future decisions. If I can help my kids learn to resist their urge to act on impulse, I will be giving them opportunities to strengthen their powers of rational thought and experiences that reinforce the messages from adults that tell them “it will get better.”
None of this is a substitute for therapy, of course, but it can be an important addition to the toolkit we all have for healthy, happy teens. When a teen is overwhelmed with negative emotion, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine that life will ever be different, and if we have these conversations with them often enough, it may well be our loving voices that show up in their darkest moments and remind them to stop and breathe without acting. It could be the difference between life and death.