I’ve been noticing recently that the local media is picking up stories about how teen suicide is on the rise here in Utah. This is naturally concerning for many and most of the news stories are reporting that they do not know the reason behind the rise in suicide rates. But official sources are reporting that suicide is now the number reason for death for kids ages 11 to 17. There’s some speculation and finger pointing going around on the reason for this rise but but I am going to steer away from those and talk more closely about risk factors and effective approaches.
I’m particularly concerned about the rise of suicide rates because it’s likely going to lead to a rise in suicide rates. Allow me to explain. Teenagers are a, monkey see monkey do, kind of bunch. When a teen takes their own life there’s like an impact crater around them. It heavily impacts the other kids close to them. They don’t have to be friends with that teen to be significantly affected by it. For the teen that died, their closest friends become a much higher risk for suicide. If your teen(s) were close to someone that died, I would strongly encourage you to take action.
Unfortunately, peer groups are extremely important to teens even in cases where the peer group is mean or negative, teens put a lot of weight into what their peers think, say and do. Having a positive, supportive peer group can make a huge difference for kids but many of them have a hard time fitting in at school. If they perceive that they are on the outside of their peer group looking in, it can really take a toll on them. If they see other kids around them taking their own lives then it can seem like more of a viable option to them.
One of your first jobs as a parent, I believe, is to facilitate open discussion about difficult topics. I completely understand that there are many barriers to this, you may not know how to have these discussions or you may find that your attempts to talk to your kids about difficult issues just causes them to distance from you or shut down entirely. You may find that they are defensive and just closed off, telling you that they don’t want to talk about it with you. If you’re worried about them and any potential risk for suicide, I would advise you, strongly to avoid asking them using this type of phrasing, “You’re not thinking about suicide are you?” Communication experts would tell you that this is probably the worst possible way that you can ask them about this. You lost them at “you’re not,” they’ve already shut down and shut you out. And just as a side tip, please adopt this as a rule of thumb. When it comes to talking to your teenager about difficult topics, eliminate the “you’re not (blank) are you?” question from your psyche. I find success in talking to kids to be a combination of good questions, good listening, working to understand them and skipping the lectures. I help a lot of families break down the barriers that keep them from communicating well.
Another rule of thumb for good communication is work to understand your teenager. A little bit of understanding goes a very long way. Ask yourself if you understand why they feel the way they do and why they act the way they do. I rarely find parents that can truly answer yes most of the time. At the end of the day, your teen mostly just wants to be understood. Feeling misunderstood creates a sense of isolation with them. If they feel isolated, they will feel hopeless and if they feel hopeless they may be thinking about suicide. Telling them how to think or not think doesn’t work. Telling them how to feel or how not to feel doesn’t work. Telling them how to fix things doesn’t work. You can actually get a lot out of a couple of good questions and some good quiet listening. A good peppering of emotional validation goes a long way too.
A lot of parents also don’t know what to do if their teenager expresses that they are suicidal. It’s important to be honest with yourself here and closely examine your response and decide if it seems to be helping or not. You can honestly make it worse with how you respond, especially if you say “you’re not thinking about suicide are you?” (Seriously. Don’t do that.) But if you’re truly concerned, you can take them to an emergency room. They will see a crisis worker who is a licensed therapist. They will assess the risk level and collaborate with the ER doctor and then guide you from there. At the very least, you can put the reigns into the hands of suicide hotline. They will know how to talk to them. But please, don’t just hand them the phone and walk away. Stay there with them, if they will let you engage in caring contact then please do that. A back rub or scratch can go a long way. Scratching their scalp or massaging it can go a long way too.
My ideal preferred scenario is for kids to have a good enough relationship with their parents to be able to go and talk to them to work through what it is that they are dealing with. I find that kids don’t do this usually because they find that talking to their parents is frustrating. A lot of kids tell me that they want to have that with their parents but have learned that their parents just frustrate them by lecturing them, telling them how to fix their problems, not listening, taking things personally or because their parents freak out and get upset.
It’s so important, now, more than ever, for parents to know what to look for and how to respond to their kids if he or she is depressed or suicidal. If you need help with this, give me a call or shoot me an email. Getting the right help can make so much difference. I hope that you will give me the opportunity to meet your family and help it. Give me a call or shoot me an email, I hope to hear from you.