It's official. And the statistics are horrific. Twice as many teens die from suicide as from car accidents. How did this happen? What brought us to this shocking predicament?
Why are Teens Killing themselves?
Experts struggle to pinpoint one central cause, and that's not surprising. There is no one causal factor in this complicated issue. Some teens are unhappy to the point that they see no purpose to living any longer. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like for their parents and families.
The Devastation it Leaves Behind
Suicide has touched my family and directly affected me. I knew the person I loved was unhappy but was told medication was helping to keep him stable. This was not the case. With a change in medication came a drastic reaction. Within two days he was gone, leaving behind a bewildered and shocked family. We blamed ourselves for not being vigilant enough, not checking in with him, not caring enough, but the truth is, once a person has decided to take their own life virtually nothing will stop them. This was not a cry for help, this was a willful ending of life.
Our children, those precious little people we love and nurture, are under greater pressures these days. I know it sounds like a cliche; trite, a one-size-fits-all phrase, but I do believe it's true. Working with kids for over 25 years, and largely on a one-to-one basis, I've come across highly anxious boys and girls but it wasn't until the last ten years that I've actually dealt with suicidal children.
So How Did I begin to Help These Children??
I began with listening. I listened to the parents and then the child. I listened with my heart, with compassion, but I was at the same time making sharp-focussed observations, drawing the strings of their lives together to get a clearer idea of what their life was like for them. Want to know what I noticed?
- The child usually had no chores in the home
- Home routines were patchy and unpredictable
- The child dictated their own bedtime
- The child had little respect for parental authority or the relationship with at least one parent was strained
- Emotional distance between the child and at least one parent. Misunderstandings had developed into repulsion.
- Parental fears and anxieties were high
- Parental authority was limited or virtually non-existent
- The child had few if any hobbies, some were totally unsuitable
- The child watched whatever they wanted on TV and DVD, including MA and R rated films
- The child had unsupervised access to the internet
- The child had few or no friends
- The child spent a lot of time staring at a screen playing games or watching things instead of being in the real world
- The child frequently expressed anger when talking about home and family
- The child felt no one understood their feelings
- The child behaved inappropriately at school
- Parents rarely said 'no' to the child or refused them anything
- The child had issues with food - poor diet, refusing to eat certain foods, bulimic etc.
- The child had socialising difficulties
- Parents maintained a facade of neatness and orderliness but underneath things were messy and complicated
- Parents seemed unable to see their child as a normal child, maintaining he/she was 'special' and treated them accordingly
- Parents felt powerless
- Parents had blinkers on when it came to their child's behaviour. They knew it was a cry for help but didn't understand what they were seeing
- The child resented their parents 'interfering' with their life
- The child's insatiable appetite for control ruled the family roost
- The child had persistent, intrusive, negative thoughts they either didn't recognise or didn't know how to deal with
- The child felt isolated and alone in their world, despite being in a loving family
- the child felt they were a burden, with no redeeming qualities
- The child had fantasised about how they would kill themselves, as the only solution to their problem
At the centre of all of this is the family - the child-parent relationship. Some of the most significant features I noticed was that the parents were either too timid or assumed they had it all under control. Both can be fatal mistakes.
A child, before they slide into a depression, begins to feel unsafe, like they are floating, with no solid ground on which to stand. This might be triggered by a death in the family, when parents don't know how to process grief or don't realise how their child is processing their own grief. It might begin with problems at school; teasing, bullying, exclusion and no real investigation is carried out as to the cause. Children can be cruel to each other, it's instinct and at its basis there is usually a fear of some kind. Children don't just wake up one day and decide the best thing to do is kill themselves. they reach such desperation over a long period of time. There are signposts along the way, but sometimes they are missed, but I'm inclined to think that a basic lack of structure in the lives of these children is often a significant factor. If we, as parents, don't stand up and make the decisions for the family, then the child feels forced into doing it. Despite demanding control, children don't actually want it. What they want is for us to lead them, to provide safety, a warm place to nestle in and be loved. But how some parents react to their child's distress can actually make it worse, despite having all the love in the world for that child.
So what can we do to prevent our children from becoming suicidal?
It begins in the home, in the ordinary everyday things. Children don't know what is good for them. That's our job to know, from experience. So here's a few ideas:
- Always know where your child is and who they are with. At any moment of the day. Or night. Choose their friends and associates carefully. Make sure the parents have strong, sensible values. If your child is spending time at the house of a friend, know exactly what kind of house it is.
- Have clear expectations of the child's behaviour at all times. Just because they're having a bad day doesn't mean they can take it out on everyone else.
- Do not let the child decide what is appropriate material to watch or listen to. Everything we put into our minds becomes a part of us. Music with explicit lyrics is completely inappropriate for children. Films with adult ratings ditto. Also silly TV shows where the child characters are sassy, opinionated and demanding while the parents are weak and indecisive. Provide GOOD ROLE MODELS for your children, especially with what they watch. Research the shows that will provide a healthy outlook.
- Provide quiet time during the day. It's so important to wind down and when kids are hyped up they sometimes don't realise they need to calm down a bit. Especially before bed. Reading aloud to your child at bedtime works wonders. It has the added benefit of broadening their vocabulary, so they can express themselves better.
- Chat. Every day. About school, home, stuff that's bothering them, fun things, their hopes, likes and dislikes, who they played with at school, who they'd like to be friends with. Listen carefully. Try to imagine your child in the playground and see how their behaviour affects their life in the social context. Do they need help with socialising skills? Are they being too demanding of others? Are they being bullied? Keep the chat channel open.
- Do fun things together. Take the time. It's an investment in your child's happiness, not a chore!
- Encourage kindheartedness and compassion towards others. Get involved in a local charity, like a dog's shelter. Collect blankets and towels to take there and donate food. Teach your child to be a good friend, by being generous. Always insist the guest goes first or chooses first. When we understand the needs of others we are less likely to focus solely on our own.
- Show you trust your child by teaching them how to be responsible and giving them opportunities to prove themselves to you. In our house we preface any new privilege with 'this is a test, ok? to see if you're ready for this.' If they fail the test, they're not ready and need more assistance and time.
- Teach your child to cope with failure. We cannot learn anything unless we accept that we WILL FAIL occasionally. No one is perfect. No one, no matter how they appear on the outside, gets it right every time.
- Give your child the tools to be self aware. We all inherit tendencies from our parents. Its genetic. But you can learn to modify yourself to minimise the problems that arise. Make sure your child knows and accepts their little idiosyncrasies with a positive attitude to manage or change.
- Above all, teach your child to be aware of their own thoughts, to recognise a single thought, when it enters their head. people often have no concept that a thought is an actual thing. It can be stopped in its tracks if its causing distress or harm.
- Be consistent, especially in your routines at home. Chores, consistent mealtimes and bedtimes are the minimum. Children will try to change it, but that doesn't mean you give in. They will try every trick they know to get around it. Don't let them.
- Seek help if you feel like your grip is slipping. If that help isn't any use keep looking, asking around for personal referrals to professionals until you find someone your child can talk to. It doesn't have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist. In fact, counsellors are better in many ways. They focus more on listening rather than diagnosing.
- Keep reading, learning, growing as a parent. There are so many awesome books out there. Key words to use in searches are: attachment theory, discipline, emotional intelligence, anxiety in children, resilience, responsibility in children, birth order, Jungian personality typology, body language, Manhood by Steve Biddulph, raising boys, raising girls, How Love Works by Steve and Sharon Biddulph, The Five Love Languages by Gary Larson.
- You will notice a blue book to the right. Its '12 Annoying Monsters - Self Talk for Kids With Anxiety.' I wrote it for my clients but it became so popular I decided to make it available to everyone. All over the world this book has sold, helping kids and parents to tackle and manage anxiety, before it develops into something more sinister. You can purchase a copy by clicking on the link. 12 Annoying Monsters
- Encourage your child to confide in another adult you trust, say an aunt, uncle or grandparent. Sometimes we can tell others things we can't say to our family
- Get plenty of rest, exercise and good food. Being healthy, cooking together, being active together, these provide opportunities for chatting as well as getting some of those frustrations out of the system. Our trampoline gets a bit of a workout on days when a certain person is cranky or frustrated with her day. By order of her mother! 15 minutes minimum.