Teen may not be capable yet of making good choices

Q. My 15 year-old granddaughter lives with me. I have tried to teach her good decision-making skills, but it just hasn’t worked. Last weekend she went to a party where people were drinking, and then let someone underage drive her home. Where did I go wrong?

A. Before you blame yourself or your teen, you should understand some information about the teenage brain. Whereas the brains of most adults have fully developed, the neurons in the teen brain are still making connections in the prefrontal cortex, the part that allows one to make future plans, to exhibit self-regulation, and to reason.

Since her prefrontal cortex has not fully developed, your granddaughter may not make adult-like decisions. However, this does not excuse her attending a party where there is underage drinking or being a passenger in a car with an underage driver. Take this opportunity to have a frank discussion with her about the dangers she can face from the faulty decision making that she displayed in her recent misadventures.

Because brain development is slower in teens and varies among individuals, parents need to be certain that they are careful gatekeepers of their teen’s activities. For you, this means knowing where she is going, how she will get home, and who will be with her. Teens often perceive themselves to be invulnerable. It is our job as grandparents, parents, and educators to convince them they are not. Your granddaughter will think you are overprotective, but she will thank you years from now.

Q. My son has a friend who committed suicide. He’s talking about it all of the time, and he seems depressed. Now I’m concerned that he may attempt to kill himself. What are the signs I should look for?

A. Teen suicide is a growing problem in our country, and yet the topic is often taboo. With the breakdown in family structure, pressures in school, constant stimulation from technology, and the hopelessness many teens feel about the future, they may resort to suicidal thoughts and occasionally suicidal behaviors. Part of averting your teen’s potential suicidal thoughts is to be involved in his life. Ask him if he is depressed, talk to him about his friend’s suicide, and be certain that he has a strong support system.

Depression is one of the warning signs that a teen could be considering suicide, but there are other behavioral changes that are usually present. Watch for loss of interest in activities, problems at school, withdrawing from family and friends, and an increase in risk-taking behaviors. Be especially watchful if he experiences a break-up with his girlfriend or bullying at school since these raise the suicide risk factor.

There are additional warning signs that a teen may be planning suicide. If he says, “I wish I were dead” or “my friend was brave,” take these warnings seriously. There are other verbal hints that teens are considering ending their lives. These include “I won’t trouble you any longer” or “I want you to take care of each other.” Sometimes teens seem better and even cheerful when they have decided to commit suicide because they have made a decision to end their lives. Resigning themselves to death actually lowers their anxiety.

One of the most important steps one can take to prevent young people from ending their lives is to bar them from access to firearms. Since most teen boys who attempt suicide shoot themselves, guns should be locked in a safe at all times. That is certainly the parents’ responsibility.

There are many excellent resources on-line about teen suicide and depression. For more information, check www.teensuicide.us and www.nami.org.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. E-mail your questions to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.