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Communication Barriers in Parents and Suicidal Adolescents
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In the last section, we discussed myths five through eight that the families of suicidal teen clients may have about suicide. These four myths are, once a person is suicidal he or she is suicidal forever, suicide is inherited, all suicidal people are mentally ill, and suicide occurs exclusively among the poor or the famous.
In this section, we will discuss four barriers to communication between adolescents and parents that may compound a teen’s suicidal crisis. These four barriers are labeling, mixed messages, over or underreacting, and nonverbal messages.
4 Barriers to Communication
♦ Barrier #1 - Labeling
A first barrier to communication between adolescents and parents during a suicidal crisis is labeling. I have found that often parents of teenage clients may believe that if they ‘label’ a behavior for their adolescent, the adolescent will be able to see it and change her or his behavior. Once the behavior is identified, many adults feel they have done their job.
Unfortunately, as you know, all that labeling or put downs accomplish is to put distance between the child and a needed source of support, and the parent may feel resolved of responsibility for the problem. The teen is left with feelings of anger and damaged self esteem because this barrier offers no help in resolving the problem. Put downs may also cause the same result. One form labeling and put downs may take is lecturing.
Brandy, 14, became depressed with suicidal ideation after her boyfriend Paul broke up with her in favor of a popular girl on the cheerleading squad right before the homecoming dance. Brandy’s mother, Tonya, did not understand how what she perceived as a minor disappointment could result in Brandy’s suicidal crisis. Tonya stated to Brandy, "Look honey, you’re too young to understand. Paul’s just one boy. There are other fish in the sea."
Other forms of put downs and labeling include being critical, having all the answers, sarcasm, power plays, ordering, prescribing, giving advice, sermonizing, withdrawal and silence, and questioning or fault-finding.
♦ Barrier #2 - Mixed Messages
A second barrier to communication between adolescents and parents during a suicidal crisis is mixed messages. Mixed messages cause confusion and blockage for teens who are attempting to develop an independent identity. If there are no clear-cut rules or standards for the teen to fall back on, the growing up process is harder, as are decisions regarding coping mechanisms in a crisis situation. By giving mixed messages, a parent may place a teen in a no-win situation, and end up encouraging an undesirable behavior. An example of a mixed message may be a parent stating, "You’re so smart, why didn’t you make high honors?"
Mixed messages also complicate a teen’s suicidal crisis in the other direction. A teen client who is suicidal may use mixed messages directed at their parents or peers, resulting in a communication barrier. Despondent over failing grades, Carl, 16, confided in his best friend Doug that he was planning to kill himself.
Doug alerted police, but when the police arrived at Carl’s home, Carl assured the officers he was only joking. A search of the home revealed no weapons, and the chief of police later described Carl as seeming calm, with a positive attitude. Two hours after the authorities left, Carl successfully completed suicide by hanging himself.
♦ Barrier #3 - Over or Underreacting
In addition to labeling and mixed messages, a third barrier to communication between adolescents and parents during a suicidal crisis is over or underreacting. As you are well aware, overreacting, even when well intentioned, can cause a teen in a suicidal crisis such distress and guilt that she or he will hide the problem so as not to upset the adult. One method overreacting in parents often takes is asking too many questions, which the teen may perceive as intrusive or hostile. I encourage parents to ask only those questions that are important, and to use non-questioning techniques to encourage open communication.
Passive Listening Technique
One technique I recommend to concerned parents who tend to overreact to statements of suicidal ideation from the teenagers is passive listening. I explain to parents that silence, or passive listening, is often used effectively by mental health professionals. As you are well aware, just by listening and saying very little, the parent can make the teen feel accepted. I encourage parents to encourage their teens in crisis to talk or say more by remaining quiet, and using only simple statements such as "tell me more about it," "I’d like to hear about it," or "tell me the whole story."
Unlike overreacting, underreacting minimizes what the teen may feel is a major issue, feeling, or problem. Being told, ‘don’t get so upset’ conveys that the adult does not understand and is not willing to share the teen’s feelings or pain. Underreacting adults may unconsciously withdraw physically and emotionally from the teen.
♦ Barrier #4 - Nonverbal Messages
A fourth barrier to communication between adolescents and parents during a suicidal crisis is nonverbal messages. As in the case of mixed messages, when a parent’s tone of voice or body language do not match verbal expressions of acceptance, the teen is placed in a bind. Does the parent feel approval or disapproval? Teenagers unconsciously rely on parents and the adults around them to be truthful, so when a mixed nonverbal message is given, the teen may believe that it is him or herself that is ‘mixed up.’ This provides a further destabilizing element to a teen in a suicidal crisis.
Think of a teen client who you are currently seeing as a result of a suicidal crisis. Would assessing these barriers to communication in the teen’s family be helpful in your intervention?
In this section, we have discussed four barriers to communication between adolescents and parents that may compound a teen’s suicidal crisis. These four barriers are labeling, mixed messages, over or underreacting, and nonverbal messages.
In the next section, we will discuss four parenting skills for setting limits that can help a teen in a suicidal crisis. These four skills are develop clear rules, eliminate vagueness, be direct, and develop a joint language.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Connor, J. J., & Rueter, M. A. (2006). Parent-child relationships as systems of support or risk for adolescent suicidality. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 143–155.
Finan, L. J., Ohannessian, C. M., & Gordon, M. S. (2018). Trajectories of depressive symptoms from adolescence to emerging adulthood: The influence of parents, peers, and siblings. Developmental Psychology, 54(8), 1555–1567.
Teismann, T., Paashaus, L., Siegmann, P., Nyhuis, P., Wolter, M., & Willutzki, U. (2019). Suicide attempters, suicide ideators, and non-ideators: Differences in protective factors. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 40(4), 294–297.
Zisk, A., Abbott, C. H., Bounoua, N., Diamond, G. S., & Kobak, R. (2019). Parent–teen communication predicts treatment benefit for depressed and suicidal adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(12), 1137–1148.
What are four barriers to communication between adolescents and parents that may compound a teen’s suicidal crisis? To select and enter your answer go to .