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Family Roundup: Emotional Red Flags: When Is the Right Time to Call for Professional Support?

The recent suicide of a 12-year-old Issaquah girl near a Klahanie trail has parents asking if they would recognize signs of depression in their kids. When should you seek professional support for a tween or teen in crisis?

The recent suicide of a has left many parents feeling sad and worried that they might miss the signs that their child is in danger with substance abuse or suicidal. Tween and teens are notoriously moody by nature; so is it possible for parents to see 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, MA, LMFTA is an adolescent and family therapist and parenting consultant with a practice in Bellevue.  She says that while moodiness is normal in tween or teens, watch for when the child is a bad mood. Most kids she observes will “perk up” around friends or participating in a favorite activity such as sports or art. But when a child is consistently withdrawn, isolating themselves socially and even verbalizing that they have “lost hope," these are red flags, says Hutchinson.

Kids can also experience a “trigger event” – a divorce, parent discord or bullying that can bring on depression. And she says, know your own family’s history of depression, the risk of which, she says, can be passed from one generation to the next.

In more serious cases, tweens and teens who are suicidal will often display signs that they are contemplating taking their life.  According to the Seattle based Youth Suicide Prevention program, watch for the follwing signs, and the more you see, the greater the risk:

  • a previous suicide attempt
  • current talk of suicide or making a plan
  • strong wish to die or a preoccupation with death
  • giving away prized possessions
  • signs of depression such as moodiness, hopelessness and withdrawal
  • increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • hinting of not being around in the future.

According to Youth Suicide Prevention, you should especially pay attention to these warning signs if your child 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 news reports of 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, impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks and a lack of connection to family and friends.

Don’t Dismiss the Warning Signs

Stephen Chick, MA, LMHC is a child and family therapist with Snoqualmie-based Mt. Si Counseling.  He says that parents can make the mistake of dismissing a change of behavior in a child. Chick says “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." Also, says Chick, "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 says "be prepared for a child to deny it." He says the best response should be,“Ok, let’s go to the doctor and see if you can pass the drug test.”

An effective parent, he says, engages when a child is in trouble, as exhausting as that might be.

“When you decline to engage, you are enabling the child,” says Chick.

And parents have a duty to also express their concerns about a friend of your child who may be in crisis, but Chick says, be mindful of your child’s relationship to his or her friend.  Chick says a good way to begin this conversation is to ask your child “what is going on with your friend” and the to ask your child to give his or her impression and what he or she thinks the next step should be.  If the situation is serious enough, says Chick, "contact the child’s parents but ask that they keep it confidential so that your child does not lose that friendship – further isolating the child in crisis."

The Good News About Depression and Suicide Prevention

The good news is “depression is very treatable," said Hutchinson.  But it is very important she says that parents do not wait to enlist professional support for a child showing changes in behavior or mood. “Don’t minimize the warning signs," she said.

And luckily for eastside parents, there is an abundance of resources for families who are worried about their child’s well being, 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 says Hutchinson, get a referral from a school counselor or an agency like Friends of Youth, and make sure that the counselor has experience with working with tweens and teens.

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