What Is The Main Cause Of Death For Teenagers?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

As a parent or guardian, you may feel that it is your responsibility to ensure that your children remain safe, despite their potential tendencies to experiment and rebel. If you're the caregiver or parent of a teen who often takes risks, you may wonder what the leading cause of death for adolescents is. 

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What is the primary cause of teenage deaths?

In a phase between childhood and adulthood, teenagers are often characterized by rebellious natures and the desire to test new paths. While it can sometimes feel worrisome for a parent, rebelliousness in teenagers can be natural and beneficial. 

Many teenagers make mistakes in figuring out what they want or who they are. However, does natural recklessness factor into the statistics related to the primary cause of death for teens? There are two leading causes of death in teenagers, discussed below. 

The leading cause of death in teens: Accidents

Over 30% of teenage and child deaths result from unintentional injury. However, this statistic may be further separated and refined into subcategories. Suicide and homicide are the second cause of death in teens. The number one killer of teenagers is car accidents and motor vehicle fatalities.

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Among accidents, the subcategories may include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Drug overdose
  • Unintentional drowning
  • Transportation (besides motor vehicles)
  • Accidental discharge of a firearm

Accident prevention

While accidents can be a heavy topic and sometimes painful to talk about or consider, consider talking about these realities with your children and family. It can be less painful than talking with medical staff or legal services after the fact.

Teenagers may not have the life experience to guide them the way many adults do, so they may need someone to rely on to offer them support, conversation, and understanding. Support and education can be helpful when dealing with taboo, complicated, or scary topics.

Motor vehicle accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of accident-related deaths in teenagers. Motor vehicle accidents make up over 50% of all accident-related deaths in adolescents, making it the leading cause overall. 

When surveyed, at least one in four teenagers stated that they don't use a seatbelt on every ride. Reasons for this included that they forgot, were not planning on traveling far, were going to a party, or the seatbelt was uncomfortable. 

Texting while driving may also be a primary factor in motor vehicle crashes, with two out of every five teenagers in the same study admitting that they have ridden with a teen driver who was texting. Most social media sites are designed to distract with continual updates used for engagement and advertising purposes, and teens can be highly susceptible. A similar number of teens also admitted to riding as a passenger with a friend who was talking on a phone, and 95% said they think other teens have ridden with drivers who were texting or talking on a phone.

Lastly, alcohol consumption may be a significant factor as well, with 40% of alcohol-related fatal car crashes involving teens. This percentage used to be significantly higher than other leading causes of motor vehicle accidents, but the number has gone down with widespread efforts to curb the prevalence of drunk driving among teen drivers.

Talking to your teen about the dangers of distracted driving, not entering a car with a drunk driver, and practicing seatbelt safety may be beneficial for preventing this type of accident. Even if your teen does not drive, they may know someone who does.  

The second cause of death in teens: Suicide and homicide

With the onset of adolescence, many teens want more responsibility than they had as children. They may want to shape, define and refine their identity. This period in life can also be earmarked by new experiences and the pursuit of dreams and aspirations. However, this self-discovery period also comes with changes in their biology, including changing physical appearances and a higher dose of hormones.

Psychologists have often stated that the ages 13-19 are undoubtedly some of the most emotionally turbulent times in our lives. It is also often theorized that at this time in our lives, we may be at higher risk for many mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, addiction, and body dysmorphic disorder, to take root in our minds. 

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As parents, guardians, loved ones, and friends, it may help to focus not only on teens' physical health but also on their mental health. Studies show that teens experience higher rates of suicide and homicide than adults.

An update on firearm-related deaths in teens

The number one killer of teenagers has shifted over the last couple of years. There is some overlap in firearm deaths between both accidental injury and homicide/suicide, making it important enough to address the new data as a separate category. In a data report regarding mortality trends that was recently updated and released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2020 and published by the New England Journal of Medicine, increasing firearm mortality has overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death of children and adolescents. This age group is defined as individuals between 1 and 19 years of age. 

In the years since the Corona pandemic began, firearm violence and firearm-related mortality have shown a significant increase, reaching a new peak in 2020. The total number of deaths among children and adolescents hit 29.5%, which is more than twice as high as the increase in the general population. In that same period, the Center for Disease Control also found that drug overdoses and poisonings in this group shot up by 83.6%, making this category the third leading cause of teen death. The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed Centers for Disease Control data and concluded that the increase in firearm deaths reflects a longer-term trend of failure to prevent teens from a preventable cause of death. 

If your teenage child or a family has communicated homicidal urges to you, consider reaching out to a mental health professional as soon as possible. If your teen has received a threat, is being bullied, or has information about another child who has indicated an intention of hurting others, report it to their school and the authorities. 

What can I do to help my teenager as a parent?

While your teens may still be growing into functioning adults, they aren't quite there yet. Many complex neurological changes occur before teenagers' brains operate the same way adult brains do.

Being a teenager can be characterized by making mistakes and learning from them; however, as their parent or guardian, you may work to ensure these mistakes are not fatal or harmful to your child.  

Teaching your teens critical thinking techniques and highlighting the importance of safety can go a long way toward preventing accidents.

Getting professional help

At times, taking the time to listen to their problems is all you need to do to show your teen that you care and are there for them. However, the importance of seeking out professional help may not be overlooked. 

If you think your teen is showing signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns, speaking to a mental health professional as soon as possible could prevent devastating outcomes. 

Many parents opt into online therapy for their child or themselves to handle the changes that can come with adolescence. Attending a counseling session from home can be beneficial for parents with busy lives. 

Online therapy has been proven by many clinical studies to be just as effective, if not more effective, than in-person therapy. Other evidence shows that digital cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, offering some much-needed relief to people who seek out these avenues of care. 

If you believe that you, a teenager you love, or both, could benefit from online therapy, reach out to a certified counselor on an online platform such as BetterHelp to start your journey toward mental peace.

Takeaway

As a parent, it may feel terrifying or overwhelming to care for someone going through so many physical and emotional changes. Although you may forget how it feels to be a teen, support can be beneficial in keeping your child away from harm. 

Consider reaching out for support if you're concerned with your child's development or behaviors. Parents may benefit from therapy to talk about their feelings or worries. A licensed counselor could help you and your family. 

Learn to cope with the challenges of adolescence
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