After 20 years of marriage and raising a family, my husband and I decided to embark on a change of residence that would move all of us out of state. Acutely aware of how transferring to new schools can be disruptive, we did a lot of talking about staying flexible while making new transitions, acclimating to new environments, and we felt gratified when our upcoming adventure to Seattle was met with anticipation and excitement by all our children. Except for one.
The life-changing phone call came as I emptied bookshelves and packed the contents (ironically hundreds of self-help and mental health books) into boxes. A grave urgency in my son’s guidance counselor’s voice immediately put me on high alert. “Get down here quick,” she said. “Your son has a specific plan for suicide, and if you move and take him away from all his friends, he says he will implement it. Today.”
The news blindsided me and I drove recklessly to our local public high school as the words sank in. Sure, I knew his school buddies were like family to him, but he was an outgoing, popular kid. Certainly he’d make more friends in the new location?
Upon my arrival at school, our relocation was the first issue addressed. “You absolutely have no choice but to cancel this move,” the stern counselor admonished. “Or at the very least postpone it for two years until he graduates and leaves for college,” she continued.
I nodded numbly, vaguely remembering the happier phone call I received a few hours earlier from our realtor. “Your escrow just closed. Congratulations, you and your family are officially proud new homeowners!”
“There’s no place like (our old) home,” I consoled myself as we immediately put numerous ads on Craigslist to try and find tenants for the dream house we had worked so hard to buy. Meanwhile we went about the task of getting my boy some psychological help.
The private psychiatrist who worked with him for the next several weeks reported that aside from this one incident, my son seemed extremely healthy, happy, and well adjusted. When I cautiously broached the subject of possibly salvaging our move, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Could you ever forgive yourself if he made good on those threats?” No. The issue was settled.
As the mother of six children ranging from early twenties down to pre-teen years, I will be the first to caution all parents that any talk of committing suicide should ALWAYS be taken seriously. However lately I have become aware of a disturbing new trend in young people to vocalize vivid threats regarding their intent to harm themselves (or worse!) as a way to exert control during certain situations where they feel powerless (such as our cross-country move) or circumstances pertaining to disciplinary measures handed down by parents that the teen finds overly harsh or feels are unfair.
But how can we discern the difference between their attempts to manipulate us and their real cries for help?
This is a dilemma I will probably never know the answer to and therefore we all must continue to err on the side of caution by believing anyone who broaches the subject of suicide. But another question I have (which begs for more research from mental health experts) is — can the tendency to resort to suicide threats be contagious amongst family members? I think the answer is a resounding yes.
I myself was once a 16-year-old angsty adolescent who, in a deliberate and consciously staged act, locked herself in the bathroom threatening to ingest an entire bottle of Liquid Plummer — all in the name of having my parents take my inner turmoil more seriously. It worked perfectly. That night they rushed me to a well-known program for young adults where I was hospitalized, treated for anxiety and depression, and released four months later.
I knew my son had no idea about this part of my own unstable history so it couldn’t have been a learned or “copycat” behavior on his part. I wrestled with the guilt that perhaps there existed a “suicide gene” and somehow he had inherited it from me. Could that be what happened?
Life finally returned to normal and my once “suicidal” son once again flourished in all his school activities and enrichment programs on campus. Every once in a while I had thoughts of resentment as I entertained the lingering and disturbing idea that if a child wanted to, they could seize control from parents and manipulate the outcome of a situation to their satisfaction, just by using the “S” word.
Guilt and shame flooded my body for even thinking such thoughts. Hadn’t I done a similar thing when I was in high school? I certainly had no intention of killing myself back then, I merely wanted extra attention during a difficult period.
Six months later while my husband and I traveled out of state (ironically dealing with a problem regarding the jinxed rental home) it was my sixteen-year-old daughter’s turn to wreak havoc upon our family. She threw a party without permission, inviting high school pals of both genders for a co-ed sleepover, something she knew was not allowed.
Teens will test limits and it’s up to adults to hand down appropriate consequences when they do, right? When we calmly informed her of a two-week grounding period, and that the parents of the other party guests would be notified there was no adult supervision on the premises, my daughter (an actress in the theatre department and a true “drama queen”) had what I considered an extreme reaction.
If you guessed it involved a suicide threat, you would be correct. The first night of her grounding, my daughter warned us she would kill herself by morning if we didn’t give her permission to attend certain upcoming parties and events with her friends. By now this was familiar territory for me and I told her she was still grounded, but we would make an appointment to talk with a professional about the fact that she would consider taking her life over a two-week punishment. I slept in her room that night for good measure.
Upon speaking with my daughter for three hours, the therapist (a different one than we used before) conversed with me privately to strongly recommend that I drop the grounding consequences. I raised the obvious question that perhaps suicide threats were a tactic she witnessed working for her older brother in the past? I was waved off and made to feel like an insensitive parent for even suggesting such a thing. My daughter outlined a plan of jumping from her two-story window and vividly conveyed every last gruesome detail to this therapist.
“Besides if she’s feeling depressed, the last thing we want to do is isolate her from the support of her peers,” the therapist countered. This meant I couldn’t take her cellphone away either. My daughter’s expression looked almost triumphant as the counselor continued explaining that she was sure a lesson had been learned and there was no need for any further disciplinary action to be enforced.
Two years later after my son finally graduated high school and went off to a university, we excitedly resumed our family’s original plan to relocate. No sooner did we put the “For Sale” sign on our front lawn when my youngest, middle-school age daughter wrote in her diary, “I am super sad about leaving all my best friends behind. If mom and dad force me to move from there, I’ll make sure they have nobody but themselves to blame when they can’t wake me up from an overdose of Tylenol.” Of course her journal had been left open to this page on the exact day of the week she knew I vacuumed all the carpets.
Fast forward to the present day and the above scene has since repeated three more times in our household (albeit in different variations and with different family members) and it would be no exaggeration if I told you there are four different psycho-therapists programmed into my phone on redial. A few of my children have been through inpatient and other intensive treatment programs to try and address other possible deep-seated and underlying issues. But always the professionals tell me the same thing — I have no choice in the matter but to acquiesce to their latest demands.
I am not alone in wondering how to handle this younger generation’s devious new way of hijacking the decision-making power from the heads of the family household. As a mother of a half dozen kids, I’ve spoken to many other parents who’ve experienced this same exhausting and frightening saga as their own tweens and teens reenact “the boy who cried wolf” with regards to threats of committing suicide.
Could our kids be talking and sharing the successful results of their suicide threats with one another, urging others to try it out when they have their own parental confrontations? We can look back into our own childhoods and recall indignantly shouting to our parents, “I’ll just run away from home and then you’ll be sorry!” But what happened next? More than likely our fathers offered to drive us to the bus stop while our mothers packed our suitcases. And that would be the end of that.
But there’s no such equivalent tongue-in-cheek banter or sarcastic retort to the teenagers’ suicide threats of today. I now have two more offspring to get through high school and secretly shudder when I realize how many more times I might experience having my parental control negated because kids are intelligent beings and it makes sense for them to duplicate behaviors that have yielded effective results in the past. There’s also an innate curiosity and temptation to experiment with their own drama while playing the “I’ll take my own life” card when life happens to deal them an unpalatable hand during their coming-of-age years.
After riding on this suicide merry-go-round for a decade now, it has taken a tremendous toll on all of us physically, emotionally, and financially. However, I have arrived at no other conclusion other than to continue to take any threat of suicide seriously and seek professional help, no matter the costs.
The dangerous alternative — finding evidence to establish a motive for a calculated effort on my tenacious child’s part to get his own way, would probably result in proving that I was right about being manipulated most of the time. But the one time I could be wrong? I could be dead wrong. And that’s a tragic outcome of events no parent ever wants to risk.
*Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, we urge you to seek help.