Coming alongside a suicidal teenWritten by Beth Lueders
Marcy cringes at the thought of maneuvering through the crammed hallways at school. She considers her wheelchair a blaring siren signalling that she is different, not one of the cool crowd, a frail reject. For this 17-year-old who suffers from a progressive muscular disease, life seems unfair, even cruel. Marcy slumps through her days, and she cries herself to sleep.
Noticing Marcy's continual sadness and disinterest in food, Marcy's parents fear their distraught daughter might try to end her life. Together they seek professional help, but they still wonder how to affirm and support their depressed teen in her everyday challenges.
Steve broke up with his long-time girlfriend the week before prom. He caught her kissing his best friend. The anger and betrayal tear at Steve's heart and the shock and despair lock him in a frozen state of numbness. Instead of ending his high school years on a fun note, Steve walls himself off in his room to play video games on his computer. Some nights he sneaks out to smoke pot with some guys who are pressing him to try crystal meth. When Steve does talk to his parents, he mumbles, "Life's not worth it . . . I can't stop the agony." Steve's father and mother worry how to reach their once exuberant son who now lives like a moody recluse.
Where to start
Perhaps you wonder too how to best "be there" for your troubled teenager. Maybe you fear your teen is contemplating suicide, but you feel awkward discussing the topic. You want to help without alienating your son or daughter even more, but where do you start?
Be informed. Suicidal thoughts and feelings are usually a symptom that your teen is not coping well, most likely because he or she finds an event or series of events overwhelmingly distressing or traumatic. Experiencing suicidal thoughts does not mean your teen is mentally ill or has a deliberate plan to end life. Suicidal people want to end their pain, not their life. Research suggests that up to 70 per cent of high school students contemplate suicide as an option at some point.1
Take all suicide talk and threats seriously and do not hesitate to seek appropriate professional help. Even with professional care, what your teen may need most is you. Suicidal youth often feel terribly isolated, so it's crucial that loved ones keep communication channels open.
Listen attentively. Good intentions are not enough when it comes to allowing your adolescent to express feelings. You must close your mouth and let your teen open his or hers. Find a place where your teen feels most safe and comfortable (yes, even your son or daughter's messy bedroom) and open dialogue with: "I love you and care about what happens to you." "I'm here for you." "Tell me what's going on inside, I want to hear how you truly feel." Then listen without interrupting.
Talk openly and ask questions. Reflect genuine concern and unhurried calm. Refrain from debating if suicide is right or wrong or judging if feelings are good or bad. Put aside the lectures on the value of life. Instead be direct and matter-of-fact about suicide. "Are you thinking of hurting yourself?" "That sounds like so much for one person to take, have you ever felt like just throwing it all away?" "Do you have a suicide plan?"
Recognize that adolescents function on a different time frame than adults – young people want answers and quick fixes now! Try to understand your child's individual coping level and perspective instead of trying to evaluate the situation through your eyes.
Avoid telling your teen how much better his or her life is than someone else's. This will only intensify feelings of guilt or unworthiness. Stop yourself from offering direction such as, "You should do this . . .", "Quit feeling sorry for yourself," or "If you'd just try harder . . ." Do not dismiss problems as insignificant, stupid or sinful. Suicide thoughts are not abnormal or unusual.
Be sure not to act shocked at what you may hear; this will only put a distance between you. Do not be sworn to secrecy or worry about being disloyal to your teen. Consider saying, "You are too valuable to me. I may need to talk to someone else who cares so we can find the best way to help you." But be discreet with whom you share your child's struggles. The last thing your teen needs is to feel betrayed by your revealing his or her personal concerns to neighbours, co-workers or others who are not equipped to help.
Affirm your love and support. Troubled teens need your trust and ongoing encouragement, especially if they are struggling with fractured relationships. Divorce, death, dating break-ups and peer conflicts are significant stressors that can push a young person toward self-harm. Earning your teen's trust starts from infancy on. Adolescents are often exceptionally sensitive to and distrustful of authority and a safe relationship takes time to form. Even if your relationship with your teen is less than ideal, you can take steps today to strengthen your bond with each other.
Set aside "alone time" just with your teen. Explore with your son or daughter fun activities the two of you can do together. Act like a kid again and let your child teach you a thing or two about camping, snowboarding, shopping, applying makeup, etc. Plan these leisure times into your schedule and guard against anything disrupting your time together. Your teen needs to feel loved and cherished and that you are willing to stop the world just for him or her. Hanging out together can invite discussions about intense feelings your child may be experiencing in the day-to-day.
Take appropriate action. Doing nothing is not an option with a despondent teen who entertains suicide. Remove possible means of self-harm such as guns or pills, even if your teen thinks you're overreacting. Do not leave your teen alone, especially if you sense his or her despondency escalating.
Your teen may need medical attention for an underlying physical condition such as clinical depression or diabetes that can affect emotional behaviours and constructive choices. Talk to a doctor, mental health professional, pastor or suicide prevention counsellor. Many communities have a suicide prevention hotline staffed by specially trained volunteers.
If you suspect your teen is dealing with abuse of drugs and alcohol, this can magnify depressive thoughts and impulsive actions. According to national suicide statistics, alcohol is involved in up to 70 per cent of adolescent suicides. Calmly discuss how getting high is only a temporary numbness for the pain. Offer hope that alternatives are available and seek help for your teen through persons or agencies specializing in substance abuse.
While you may be tempted to play therapist and solve your teen's problems within your family, please take note of your limits. You should not try to handle the enormity of your adolescent's pain alone.
The majority of people who feel suicidal and do get help to work through their crisis period go on to live happy, rewarding lives. Today may be the day that you come alongside your teen in his or her private hurt and despair. Love, listen, talk, affirm and act. And remember, your teen is not alone and neither are you.
If you suspect your teen is entertaining thoughts of suicide, equip yourself and your teen with contact information for Crisis Services Canada's national suicide-prevention hotline available 24/7, toll free at 1.833.456.4566 or by texting 45645.
We recommend that you seek professional counselling for your teen without delay. Focus on the Family Canada's counselling department can provide you with a list of qualified Christian therapists in your area who specialize in dealing with problems of this nature. Our counsellors will also be happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.
1 http://www.teenhealthcentre.com. "FAQs by Parents About Suicide," Teen Health Centre, 2001.
Beth Lueders is an author, speaker and freelance writer who lives in Colorado. Visit BethLueders.com to learn more about her books and inspirational speaking.
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