More and more teens are attempting and committing suicide, not only locally, here in Utah, but suicide rates are increasing on a national level as well. In my professional opinion, we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic. Depression, anxiety and suicide have become our modern version of the plague. In the last two to three years, I have seen teen mental health take a major nose dive. I’ve never been this concerned about our teenagers. So what’s going on? Why are we having a such a major crisis? There are a lot of contributing factors, this isn’t a simple issue with simple answers. Please stay tuned if you want to be a part of getting to the bottom of this and help work to solve it.
This comes up fairly often, the idea that teens talk about or attempt suicide as a way to get attention or that this is just attention seeking behavior. When it comes to suicide, I always rather be safe than sorry but to this point, I have just one question. What’s wrong with wanting attention? I, of course, don’t condone suicide as a positive or viable way of getting attention but I would argue a couple of important things here. First, there’s nothing wrong with wanting or needing attention when you’re a teen. And second, did these teens try other ways of getting attention before resorting to threats of suicide?
What’s wrong with wanting attention? Here’s the reality of having children, they are needy. They want and need attention and validation. It would be nice if they were like a house plant or a cat in that they are largely self-sufficient and low maintenance but they’re not. Kids are high maintenance. Assume that even though teens act like they are annoyed by you, and they often can be, that they still need positive attention and validation. But if you think that they are engaging in suicidal talk and behavior for attention than for crying out loud give them attention. Let me be clear though, if you give them attention out of frustration or anger, you’re probably going to make it worse. Please focus on what works instead of what should work. If your suspicion is that they are trying to get attention then find ways to give positive attention such as planning a parent child date. Take them to dinner, go do something fun. Talk to them, listen to them, have fun with them. Here’s the bottom line, yes, it’s possible that they are expressing suicidal intentions for attention but what is wrong with wanting or needing attention and if they are doing it for attention, then give them some positive attention.
The other question remains, why have they decided to use suicide as a method for getting attention? My first answer is that they have tried other ways and it didn’t work and it’s possible that they feel like they have to up the ante. I think it’s important to understand that a lot of kids act out as a cry for help and sometimes they act out because doing good things and positive things gets largely ignored because that behavior is often labeled as what is expected. I have seen dozens of situations in which a teenager uses negative behaviors to get attention because getting attention through positive means was ineffective. They learned that when they do good things or what is expected, it goes largely unnoticed. I say all the time, if you want to change your child’s behavior, regardless of their age, pay less attention to negative behaviors and pay more attention to positive behaviors. The behaviors that get the most attention are the behaviors that you’re most likely to see again. If they mention suicide and get tons of attention around it, you’re likely to see that behavior again.
By all means, I am not implying that suicidal talk should not be given attention or taken seriously but once you determine that your teen is safe and you have decided that you want to make some changes, the best place to start is to pay more attention to positive behaviors. Additionally, I highly recommend taking a different attitude towards attention seeking behaviors. Ask yourself honestly, what’s wrong with wanting attention from your parents?
If you want to increase your effectiveness, take time out of your day to give individualized attention. Fifteen minutes of emotional focus on your kids will go much further than floating around for several hours. Talk to them on their level, listen to them, give them eye contact and express love, caring, affection and respect. This is far more effective than sort of being around when they need you.
But you may also want to take an honest look at your expectations. With our current high rates of suicide and in our current mental health crisis, I am calling on people to focus on solutions. Please ask yourself honestly: Could you do a better job of paying attention to positive behaviors and reinforcing them? Do you expect your teens to do positive things when they don’t see or understand the benefits of doing so? Do you view attention seeking behavior as all around negative?
I believe that there are so many things that we as adults and parents can be doing that can make a world of difference in our relationships with our kids which ultimately benefits them. If you would like to learn more about these effective methods, give me a call. If we want to turn this situation around, we need to all work together.