Helping Teens in Crisis

Recent teen suicides in my hometown are bringing fear, shock, and sadness to the community.  These tragedies now have parents and teachers looking for ways to talk to their kids about it, and at the same time, fears that they are helpless to prevent a crisis.

It’s true that suicides have increased by 28% from 2000 to 2015. Suicide rates have always been, and remain highest among men.  But, the most shocking increase is among girls ages 10 to 14.  Where the increase in those five years is 200%.  (Pain in the Nation, 2017, Trust for America’s Health).  Most of those girls have a mood disorder (clinical anxiety or depression), which is also on the rise.  The national average is about 30% of students are saying that they are having feelings of depression.

Understandably, parents worry, since most teenagers at one time or another seem depressed, have mood swings, and feel left out.  They can also be secretive, choosing not to communicate with parents.  The difficulty for a teen is that she feels is alone in her feelings.  Thinking that “no one else is like this, I’m the only one”, which drives further isolation and not wanting to seek help, when emotions seem too deep to understand, and “so different from everyone else.”

Yet, there is much that we can do as parents and caregivers.  There are societal factors contributing to the increase in teen suicide and depression.  We can be aware of the challenges that every adolescent girl faces in 2018.  Understanding what’s going on in our society helps us foster resilience in our girls.

Some things that we can work to increase our girls’ resilience:

  1. Connection.  An increased feeling of isolation among teens (and among all of us), leads to a feeling that no one can understand or relate.  We know that pain decreases when we feel connected to another human being.  Our brains are wired for connection.  Parents often ask, “how do I have a relationship when everything turns into a fight?”  First, is to remember that as parents, we still set the emotional tone.  Our goal is to have separate boundaries, and a relationship of openness and equality.  In a few short years, your teen will be leaving the nest!  So, if we want a healthier relationship, here are some guidelines:
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Stay calm when your teen becomes emotional.
  • Let your principles be known at appropriate times.  Not in the middle of an emotional storm!
  • Be firm in what you are willing, and not willing to do. You cannot control another person, but you have a choice in how you behave.
  • Focus on the positive.  Show genuine interest in their achievements (Empty praise won’t work).  Avoid criticism and advice giving.
  • Be interested in your teen’s life, but keep the primary focus on yourself, and your marriage, if there is a spouse or partner in the picture.  When you are confident and have your own interests and achievements, your child will feel more secure in her world.  Your children should not be the measure of your success.  It puts too much pressure on them.
  1. Sleep and fun.  It may be that loss of sleep, not too much internet time, is what is plaguing our teens. Centers for Disease Control report that 70% of middle school and high school students don’t get enough sleep, which contributes to poor mental and physical health, especially depression. Physical exercise, art, music, or walking….find ways to connect with your teen through play.  If it can be unstructured, even better!  Play helps decrease stress and exercise improves sleep.
  1. Delay sexual activity.  Be aware of early sexualization of girls.  We can’t avoid early puberty, but the fact that the onset is becoming earlier can be a risk factor. Age ten to fourteen is becoming more common for puberty among girls.  The attention from boys, and having to make decisions about sex before they are emotionally ready for it, can make early adolescence an especially stressful time.  She may feel that attention from boys gives her status, but emotionally and intellectually, she is not ready to be sexually active.  We need to help our kids build inner strength.  It will help guide them to do what feels right, in spite of the external messages they receive.

Perhaps the crisis in teen suicide will help us to reassess the way we are raising our young people.  The combination of stress, isolation and earlier physical maturity are making us re-evaluate what they need.  On an individual level, there are a few changes we can make in our relationships and families that can make a world of difference in helping to protect our children from trying to escape their pain by ending their life.

Many individual psychological risk factors and stressors weigh into a young person’s decision to take their own life. For hotlines, and more information on suicide and developing resilience, here are some resources:
Brief Suicide Assessment Guide, NIMH
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
The Resilience Factor, by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, PhD.
Raising our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide to Helping Children Cope with
Trauma in Today’s World, by Linda Goldman

Tory Joseph is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical counselor with the Imago Center of DC, where she specializes in relationship counseling. She is also a parent educator of 20 years, with the Parent Encouragement Program of Kensington, Maryland.  She lives in Bethesda, where she and her husband raised their three children.