Public Release: 

Parenting behaviors linked to suicide among adolescents

Junior high school-aged children at significantly higher risk than peers when parents are not emotionally responsive

University of Cincinnati

How often do you tell your kids they did a good job? Do you say you are proud of them? Do you help with homework? Are you emotionally engaged with your kids?

A fresh look at a federally sponsored 2012 national study shows a significant link between parent's behaviors and thoughts of suicide among adolescents, according to a presentation given by two University of Cincinnati professors at the 2017 American Public Health Association conference.

UC professors Keith King and Rebecca Vidourek performed a follow-up data analysis of results from the "2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health," which provides national- and state-level data on the use of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs -- including nonmedical use of prescription drugs -- and mental health in the United States.

Their findings showed that children between the ages of 12 and 17 are significantly more likely to contemplate, plan and attempt suicide when their parents do not engage in certain behaviors that demonstrate to their children that they care about them. "Kids need to know that someone's got their back, and unfortunately, many of them do not. That's a major problem," King said.

Startlingly, the findings showed that the age group most significantly impacted by parenting behaviors was 12- and 13-year-old children. Children in that age group with parents who never or rarely told them they were proud of them were nearly five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, nearly seven times more likely to formulate a suicide plan and about seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Similarly, 12- and 13 year olds with parents who rarely or never told them they did a good job or helped them with their homework were at excessively high risk for suicide.

"Parents ask us all the time, 'What can we do?'" said King, who coordinates UC's health promotion and education doctoral program and serves as Director of the Center for Prevention Science. "You can tell them you're proud of them, that they did a good job, get involved with them, and help them with their homework."

"A key is to ensure that children feel positively connected to their parents and family," added Vidourek, who serves as Co-Director of the Center for Prevention Science

The risk of suicidal behaviors among high school-aged teens, though lower than among 12- and 13-year-olds, is still significantly higher when their parents aren't emotionally involved. For example, 16- and 17-year-olds whose parents rarely or never told the children they are proud of them are about three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and almost four times more likely to make a suicide plan and attempt suicide than peers whose parents sometimes or often did.

That may seem promising when compared to the youngest age group, but the decrease in the odds of suicidal behavior among children ages 14 and above may partially stem from teens finding other coping mechanisms to deal with their lack of parental engagement, such as involvement in drug use and high-risk sexualy behaviors, King said. "It follows through consistently, regardless of gender, regardless of race -- it's all across the board," he said.

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