Are there any fool-proof ways to help an adolescent steer clear of self-destructive thoughts and feelings? Don't misunderstand – I'm not asking because I sense any immediate danger. My daughter seems fine right now, but after hearing so much in the media about teen suicide I want to do whatever I can to promote positive mental health and emotional well-being. Any ideas?
To begin with, we suggest that you pour some serious time and effort into developing strong family bonds and building an open, communicative relationship with your daughter. Statistics indicate that a sense of parent-family connectedness is one of the most effective protections against suicidal behavior among young people. And while many parents don't realize it, adolescents require every bit as much of Mom and Dad's time and energy as toddlers. Your daughter needs you now just as much as she ever did – only she needs you in different ways.
Among other things, this means that you should be looking for opportunities to talk with your teen. To a certain degree, it doesn't really matter what you talk about. The important thing is to establish channels of communication that will be up, running, and ready to go if and when the need arises. Your efforts will yield the most fruit if you resist the temptation to dominate the conversation and cultivate good listening skills. Take a strong interest in the details of your daughter's life. Find out what gets her excited. Focus on her passions. Questions can be a big help in this regard, but they should be one-liners – for instance, "What really gets you excited?" or "How do you feel about your schedule at school this year?" You can set the stage and smooth the pathway to meaningful interaction by scheduling specific times – perhaps on a weekly basis – to go out for ice cream or take walks around the neighborhood together.
Your integrity as a person and as a parent is another important element of healthy family connectedness. In other words, you need to work hard to maintain congruency between what you say and what you do in every area of life. Begin by trusting in the Lord with all your heart. Look to Him in every circumstance. Set an example of resilient faith and hope and let your daughter see that God is your rock and your foundation. When your behavior doesn't match up with your convictions, don't be afraid to admit it. There's nothing wrong with being honest and confessing your faults to your kids, especially when you're aware that your mistakes have hurt them in some way. Vulnerability is an important part of love. It's also essential to the process of building interpersonal trust.
It might also be a good idea to take some steps in the direction of raising your daughter's awareness of the problem of teen suicide. It's a serious issue, and it deserves open and honest discussion. Many parents assume that talking about suicide may have the unintended effect of encouraging suicide, but this is a misconception. In actuality, the opposite is true: frank discussion and open airing of suicide-related fears, doubts and tensions is one of the best ways of preventing self-destructive behavior among young people.
If the tragedy of teen suicide should touch your community, give your daughter a chance to express her feelings about it. Ask her if she has any idea why the young person in question felt compelled to end his or her life. Delve into the spiritual and philosophical implications of the incident and talk about the pervasive hopelessness, malaise, and desensitization to the value of life that seem to characterize many members of the up-and-coming generation. Get your daughter to think seriously about what it means to live in a world without purpose, without meaning, and without God. Remind her that she's been made in her Creator's image and that her life is infinitely precious and valuable in His sight.
When you've done everything you can to put your daughter on the firmest possible emotional footing, pray for her and leave her in the Lord's hands. But bear in mind that the teenage years can be emotionally turbulent, what with physical changes, hormonal changes, and the shifting demands of peer pressure. Research indicates that a significant percentage of young people will experience clinical depression at some point during this phase of their growth and development. This is not necessarily a cause for alarm, but it is something you should be aware of, since depression is one of the key components of a suicidal mindset.
For this reason, it's important to be aware of the some of the common behaviors of clinical depression. These include painful introspection, negative self-concept, dramatic mood swings, episodes of moping and crying, withdrawal and isolation, fatigue and other unexplained physical ailments, poor school performance, and outbursts of anger and overt acting out. Should these symptoms ever be present and persist for more than two weeks you should seek appropriate help immediately. You may want to contact your physician for advice or a referral. Even when a present threat of suicide doesn't seem to be part of the picture, it's still important to deal with the depression on its own account.
If you think it might be helpful, we invite you to call our Counseling department and talk to one of our caring Christian therapists. They'd be happy to discuss your situation with you. They are also in a position to provide you with a list of referrals to professional counselors in your local area.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center – 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673)
Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
When You Feel Hopeless