Suicide is the third-leading cause of adolescent death worldwide, and is responsible for a quarter of all adolescent deaths in Canada. The research examines the link between parental bonding – a term describing the quality of a parent-child relationship – and a history of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Numerous studies suggest that positive parental relationships reduce adolescents’ risk of experiencing depression, loneliness and suicide. “However, it has been unclear whether positive adolescent-parent relations protect against suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or both,” says Boaz Saffer, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in clinical psychology at UBC. “This is a crucial distinction, given that most people who think about suicide do not act on their thoughts.”
The research used two U.S.-based samples: adolescent psychiatric patients and high school students. Parental bonding was divided into two categories: parental care and parental overprotection. The patients and students completed several questionnaires measuring parental care and overprotection, as well as other known suicide risk factors such as loneliness, emotional distress, and self-worth.
Results indicated that adolescents with a history of suicide attempts reported lower parental care than non-suicidal adolescents and adolescents with a history of suicidal thoughts. The other variables assessed – parental overprotection, loneliness, emotional distress and self-worth – were no different in those who made suicide attempts compared to those who only thought about suicide.
“These findings indicate that caring parent-adolescent relationships reduce the likelihood that suicidal thoughts lead to suicide attempts,” says Saffer. “Therefore, increasing parental care might represent an important opportunity to reduce suicide risk in adolescents, especially in adolescents already experiencing suicidal thoughts.”
The study, Clarifying the Relationship of Parental Bonding to Suicide Ideation and Attempts, is published online in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. Saffer’s co-authors are Catherine R. Glenn from Harvard University and E. David Klonsky from UBC’s Dept. of Psychology.
The study involved 172 adolescent psychiatric patients at a large hospital, and 413 adolescents aged 12 to 18 at a large high school; both facilities are based in the northeast U.S.