Impulsivity: A risk factor in teen suicide

Jonathan Swinton, USU Extension

It was a sad day. I received a heart-sickening call from a couple I knew well informing me their son had just hung himself. They shared details of a fight this boy had with his father that made the boy very upset. He stormed downstairs to his room and his father thought he could use some time to cool off. 

This boy had struggled with severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and had a history of impulsive behavior. Storming down the stairs was par for the course for this young man. He usually stomped louder and louder to get his point across to his parents. 

The tragic ending to this story is that the boy was not cooling off, but he was hanging himself. My guess is that he impulsively did it thinking he was sending a message to his father. The impulsivity got the better of him, and he didn’t objectively consider the finality of the action. 

I don’t share this story to bring fear to parents who have children who struggle with impulsivity. Rather, I share this because though the chances a child will commit suicide due to impulsivity is rare for the general population, it is a risk factor that we don’t hear discussed enough when we talk of teen suicide.

Children who struggle with impulsivity would benefit from parents who will help them recognize that when they act impulsively, there is often some sort of emotion or feeling they have that they don’t know how to express or deal with appropriately. As a result, the impulse gets the better of them. 

The part of the human brain that fully conceptualizes cause and effect behavior and controls impulsivity doesn’t finish developing until roughly age 24. 

As a result, the impulse-related suicidal behavior is much more common in the teenage years. 

If you have a child who struggles with impulsivity (and who doesn’t?), it would help the child learn to deal with the emotions felt in the moment. Encouraging the child to express that he or she feels resentful, judged, defensive, afraid, invalid, betrayed, etc. will help the child learn to deal with what is triggering the impulsivity. These kinds of words will rarely come easily for a child or teen without help. Therefore, they will benefit from guided suggestions and a lot of validation. Over time, they can get good at this because your validation will be more rewarding for them than acting impulsively. 

This will help them with their mental and emotional wellbeing, it will help their relationship with you, and it will help them learn over time how to deal with some of what feeds more severe impulsivity. 

As a result, they will be healthier, you will have a better relationship with them and they will be less likely to make significant impulsive decisions from which they cannot return.

Dr. Swinton is a relationship and mental health expert with Utah State University Extension in Sevier County. If you have questions you would like him to confidentially address in this column, email him at jonathan.swinton@usu.edu. 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.