I’ve been working with teenagers for nearly twenty years and I have never felt so concerned about the state of their wellbeing and mental health. As the rates of teen suicide continue to climb, it’s no mystery that we are in the midst of a crisis. Our young people are dying by their own hands at an alarming rate. These are our young people, our children and our future, they deserve for us to stop what we are doing and address this problem. As part of the work that I am doing in the area of teen suicide, I have developed my own organization that is dedicated to addressing suicide and helping people by teaching them ways to be more resilient. I call it The Resiliency Alliance and you can check out the website at www.resiliencyalliance.org.
As part of my organization, I am dedicated to teaching parents skills in the quickest and easiest ways possible in order to reduce the risk of suicide. People ask me all the time why teens are suicidal. I believe that I understand why but I believe that it far more important to go at this from a different angle. Instead of telling parents why I think so many teens are suicidal, I have been actively encouraging them to ask their kids. Parents also often ask me what is the best way to know whether or not their teen may be suicidal and the answer is the same. Ask them. If you really want to know whether or not your teen is suicidal, you should ask them. However, you should take care of how you ask them. If you ask them in the wrong way, you may as well not ask them at all.
Think about how you might normally go about asking your teenager about this, you can probably anticipate how they would respond to you. If they would respond in a defensive way than it’s not going to be useful to ask them. Be deliberate about how you go about this. Research has shown that there is absolutely, positively one sure fire way to guarantee a dishonest and closed conversation about suicide. Whatever you do, do not approach them and say “you’re not suicidal, are you?” Of course they are going to say no. So what should you do instead? Listen with your heart and not your words.
Most parents that I work with admit that they could be better listeners. They quickly get caught up in trying to fix things or just giving advice. This isn’t listening. Your job is listen, ask questions, understand, express empathy, exercise compassion, express love, listen some more and ask more questions. When done correctly, this is profoundly effective. You need to resist the urge to interject your own point of view and advice. You need to resist the urge to direct them on what they should do. You should especially resist the urge to make their decisions for them. Find the loving parent within your and connect to your child, I promise you that this will go much further than telling them what to do. Think of your own experiences, think about how you feel when people don’t listen to you and instead just tell you what to do. Chances are you stopped listening to that person a long time ago and stopped turning to them for help.
So let me give you some good ways to open some dialogue, keep it going and having it end on a positive note. First, here are some suggestions on how to open an honest dialogue and start listening with your heart instead of your words.
- “How are you doing these days?”
- “What is troubling you?”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “It seems like a lot of kids your age are struggling, how are you doing?”
And then listen, and when they give you some initial information, pause. Don’t talk. Wait and let the silence linger a little bit and see if they talk some more. If you don’t understand something, be mindful that you don’t understand and ask some follow up questions:
- “What did you mean when you said ______?”
- “How does that feel?”
- “What is that like?”
- “Have you always felt that way?”
- “I don’t understand, can you tell me what that means?”
It’s always good to express love, empathy and compassion:
- “I felt that way when I was young too.”
- “I know what that’s like.”
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- “I hope you know how much I love you.”
- “I hope you know how much you mean to me.”
- “That’s sounds frustrating.”
- “I know you can figure it out.”
You really should express to your children how important that they are to you. They need to hear it from you even if they act like they don’t. Focus on the positives about them, this is really important. I believe that the most important part is to ask them follow up questions about what they need and how you can help.
- “What can I do to help?”
- “What do you need from me?”
- “What do you need?”
- “Would you like to see a therapist?”
- “What can I do better?”
- “Let me know if you would like some advice.”
- “Let me know if you think of anything that I can do to help.”
This takes practice but I believe that this is the basis of the vital skills that all parents should incorporate in order to ensure that their own teenager does not resort to desperate means when they are in trouble.
* If you would like some more individualized help in this area, I hope you will give me the opportunity to work with your family. Greater change starts on the individual basis. Give me a call if you would like to inquire about individual or family counseling.
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