In the last year and especially the last six months, I have been thinking a lot about how to make the biggest difference locally because of the ever increasing rates of teen suicide. If you ask me, there are two things that we must realize and embrace. The first thing is that there is something that we as a society and a culture are doing that is contributing to young people taking their own lives at record rates. Whatever that something is, I believe it’s likely that we commonly believe that it’s a positive thing and so we have kept doing it until it has become a major fault.
The second thing that I believe that we must realize and embrace is that it is undeniably clear that we need to make drastic shifts as a culture and as a society and while that is no small task, it is not only important and necessary but vital if we want to save lives. This is why I am working to take on the task and the challenge of addressing some of the beliefs, attitudes and approaches that I believe are detrimental to the overall mental health of our youth. I am producing articles, videos and other content that is intended to help with this but if change is going to happen, it’s going to take our combined efforts.
Today, I need to talk about emotions and negative emotions. Our local culture here seems to have gotten into the habit of wanting to get rid of negative emotions and chase them away as though there is no place for them at all. We seem to have grown accustomed to telling our children that they should only feel positive and good emotions all of the time regardless of the reason.
Some distress is very real and unfortunately as adults, we seem to forget what it was like to be young and experience new emotions that came with new and difficult situations. “Negative” emotions are often a correct or appropriate response to the experiences that life gives us and how we perceive those experiences. It’s normal for kids to feel sad if they lose a friend or hurt if they get dumped. It’s normal for them to feel lonely and down when they feel like they don’t fit in or measure up to others. Too many of us have grown accustomed to tell them not to feel certain ways and just be happy instead.
I argue that this is quite harmful, in the moment and when we look at teen development. Teens start to believe that their emotions are wrong and that they are bad for having them, which is just not true. This also prevents them from learning positive ways to deal with and handle them which is a crucial skill for life. I sometimes find myself asking parents to be honest with themselves about why they find themselves so uncomfortable when their children are expressing negative emotions and challenge them to allow it happen while making effort to be validating and supportive versus just trying to provide fixes and solutions but that’s a topic for another article.
Emotions are not like a whac-a-mole machine. Remember that game? I don’t even know if they are still around but most people remember that you had to use the big padded mallet to hit the moles as they pop out of the holes on the machine. When they mole was hit, it would go back down into the hole and points were awarded. I think too many of us have fallen into the erroneous thinking that we should treat our emotions this way. Knocking our emotions back down in order to get rid of them as fast as possible. As I said before, and will again to emphasize it, emotions are normal and they are a normal response to life, perceptions and circumstances. But additionally, emotions and emotional pain are also like physical pain. They are telling us that something is wrong and I think it’s inadvisable to dismiss them or get rid of them entirely.
When I’ve asked teens about what they wanted parents and adults to better, some of them have said that they want adults to stop discouraging them from expressing and experiencing emotions. They have also expressed that it’s not helpful to have their emotional experience down played because they are kids.
I want to challenge everyone that reads this to make a personal commitment to take an active part to make some personal changes and then to have the critical conversations with others. We must do better. I’m here to tell you that validating a teens emotions and validating their experience is one of those small things that can make a big difference in a short amount of time and can easily change an outcome. A suicidal teen can quickly change their mind if they feel understood and validated. Please, we must stop telling children to not feel certain ways or to not cry. Life is hard and distressing. People have good reasons to feel negative emotions and that includes children.
I believe that the key to decreasing teen suicide is to increase the resiliency of our children and our families. Resiliency is what results when we struggle and are able to adapt and overcome. Our kids must be allowed to experience negative emotions and have the support of their parents in the process.
*Please join the conversations and take an active part in preventing teen suicide. Share this information and please help us spread the message of resiliency. Please visit www.resiliencyalliance.org for more information. If you’re worried about your teen, I am an experienced and qualified therapist that specializes in treating teenagers. You can learn more about my therapy services at www.saltcitycounseling.com