Category: parenting

Parent in midlife with teenage son

Parenting in midlife: Preventing teenage suicide

“I guess this is our last goodbye
And you don’t care, so I won’t cry
But you’ll be sorry when I’m dead
And all this guilt will be on your head
I guess you’d call it suicide
But I’m too full to swallow my pride
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stand losing
I can’t, I can’t…

(https://www.sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/108)

Many parents currently in their midlife may be familiar with these lyrics from a 1978 Police song. Similar threats have been made by teenagers in real life. But, to parents and other adults, they seem like immature, empty threats to be ignored. On the other hand, suicide is frequently linked with clinical depression. Major depression is a mental illness that sometimes burdens one with such intensely negative thoughts that suicide seems like the only escape.

Most of the time teenagers who hurt themselves do not want to end their lives. They just want to put an end to the painful emotions they are experiencing. And, it is only chance that separates an attempted suicide from a fatal suicide. Hence, midlife parents who have teenaged children have to view all suicidal behaviours and threats as calls for help.

All teenagers do not think of harming themselves. And, the good news is that we now have a better understanding of why that is so. We have also been able to identify factors that make some teenagers more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. This gives us many opportunities, as parents in midlife and adults, to intervene. To make changes that help reduce the pressure young people go through. To be more involved in kids lives, to listen, understand and support them through their struggles.

Risk factors for suicide amongst teenagers

Researchers have identified the following suicide risk factors that midlife parents can watch out for. Many teenagers who meet the following criteria may never hurt themselves. But the following factors do increase the chances of some young people attempting suicide.

ALERT Factors:

The following are common factors that increase the chances of a teenager attempting or completing suicide at some point in time.

– Having made one or more suicide attempts in the past
– Having been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, eating disorders or tendency to behave in an aggressive-impulsive way
– Engaging in alcohol, drug or substance abuse of any kind
– Being 16 years old or older ( kids this age are more independent and not constantly monitored )
– Being a boy – While both boys and girls attempt suicide, boys tend to use more lethal means
– Having experienced abuse of any kind, including sexual or physical abuse
– Being gay or transgender
– Not having supportive relationships, that is, friends and adults they feel comfortable reaching out to for help.
– Relationship issues that includes family discord or fighting, bullying or being ostracised at school.
– Financial problems
– Suicide contagion – young people tend to get influenced by media coverage of suicides, especially those involving famous people or celebrities. They are also influenced by suicides committed by family members, people in their neighbourhood, school or others who seem to have a similar background or issues as them.

RED ALERT Factors:

The following factors show that a young person is currently in great distress and may attempt suicide. Parents need to keep a particularly close watch on a young person who shows any of the following. Getting help for their child as well as for themselves becomes crucial at such a time.

– Showing a drastic change in personality. For example, from being a social, outgoing, confident young person, becoming very reclusive, irritable, angry or withdrawn.
– Having recently undergone some kind of a socially stressful situation. For example, public humiliation, bullying, break-up, or something viewed as a big failure/loss
– Expressing thoughts around death and dying in conversations or through writing.
– Loss of ability to think clearly and logically.
– Extreme feeling of hopelessness.
– Overwhelming emotional pain or distress.

Factors that protect teenagers from suicide

Research has shown that there are two specific family related factors that protect children from suicide. These include:

Family connectedness:

Warm and caring behaviours are the hallmark of well connected families. Such families are able to role model better coping behaviour. Family members are able to openly express their feelings. They also tend to resolve differences in more constructive ways. Family members talk and share what is going on in their individual lives. They know each other’s internal and external worlds. And, they are able to offer support to each other through difficult times. In addition, stable family relationships provide a sense of stability and security to a child that helps in his/her emotional growth.

Most parents instinctively do what is right for their child. But parenting teenagers is undoubtedly a very demanding and complex task. So, if you feel concerned about your child or overwhelmed with the issues he/she is facing, reach out for trained, professional help. Also, try to create a support system of caring grown ups for yourself and your child.

If your relationship as a couple in midlife is rocky, it is likely to have an impact on your child. Therefore, it is crucial that you get help in order to sort out your own relationship issues. It is never too late to start creating a sense of family connectedness. Even if you do so in midlife.

Emotional wellbeing:

As parents, suicide prevention really begins with knowing one’s child. Who is he, how does she cope with emotional ups and downs, who are his friends, what is her everyday life like, is he getting bullied, is she having trouble with making friends, is he anxious about his studies, has her behaviour or academic performance undergone a change? The chin-up and deal with it strategy that schools and parents offer to young people, as that is the easiest, often fails.

Emotional wellbeing is the immunity that needs to be strengthened so that the young person can take on the ups and downs of life. Young people need caring grown ups to learn from. Young people need role models they can talk and interact with. Role models who demonstrate constructive coping behaviour. Young people need parents who can listen and try and understand their world. Young people need real people and time. None of this can be replaced by technology or child minders or technology as child minder.

One needs to listen to, try to understand, and help children problem solve from an early age. Warm, caring relationships foster emotional wellbeing. And, parents play the most crucial role in creating this warm, caring environment for their children. In order to do so, however, parents need to take care of their own emotional wellbeing first.

If you as a parent in midlife are finding it difficult emotionally to cope with challenges at work or home, get help. If you often feel overwhelmed by midlife issues or are resorting to food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, the internet or any other addictive behaviours to cope, then also seek help. If you feel angry and irritable often and take it out on your spouse or children, it is important to seek help.

It is important to address your personal issues not just for your own wellbeing but also for your child’s emotional wellbeing. If you are not feeling emotionally healthy you will not be able to help your child build his/her emotional immunity. In addition, you are the most important role model in your child’s life and he/she will learn how to cope with situations from you.

Systemic or Societal level changes:

– At a societal level, adults need to be mindful of the language we use and the coping strategies we adopt when faced with difficult situations.

– The media needs to be responsible in the way it covers news of suicide. Media guidelines have been developed internationally that describe how media should report on suicides. For example, the Austrians realised that there was in increase in suicides after the media reported on some subway suicides in Vienna in a sensationalized manner. They then developed and implemented media guidelines for reporting in suicides. After these guidelines were implemented, the numbers of suicides fell. Studies looking at the number of suicides four years after these guidelines were implemented found that the number of subway suicides had reduced by 75 %. The total number of suicides had also reduced by 25%.

– Health professionals who come in contact with teenagers need to be trained to identify signs of depression and potential for suicide. Appropriate help needs to be made available. Currently in India, very few psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are adequately trained to work with teenagers. If a teenager has to be given psychiatric medications, it should only be administered by a child and adolescent psychiatrist. These medications can affect young people in ways that are very different from the way they affect adults. Sometimes the effects can even be harmful.

– In rural India, agricultural pesticides are often bought and stored in large quantities. These become the most popular means of impulsive self harm when a person is upset. Selling pesticides and medications in packaging that is not easy to open may help, especially when the suicide attempt is an impulsive act. Parents need to store pesticides and medications in such a way that young people do not have easy access. Similarly restricting access to other means of suicide wherever possible may also help. For example, placing safety barriers around places, such as, train stations, bridges, etc., where suicide attempts are known to occur.

– Schools can also be places that can foster better coping behaviour amongst children. In India, the biggest challenge in rural and urban schools is curbing the culture of violence. Teachers need to become more sensitive towards their students. Bullying needs to stop. Tolerance for differences and cooperation engendered.

Aside from being diagnosed with a mental illness like depression, there are many other factors involved in teenage suicide. The good news about that is that it gives us many opportunities, as parents and adults, to intervene. To make changes that help reduce the pressure young people go through. To be more involved in kids lives, to listen, understand and support them through their struggles. To model better behaviour and encourage better ways of coping. To stop glorifying suicide or sensationalizing it on and off screen. This is why it also becomes crucial for parents to know their child’s temperament and the child’s world – the child’s friends, the status of their relationships, their activities, their interests, their worries, their ambitions, and through it all be a supportive presence. Be a stabilising presence.

Resources:

If you or someone you know is currently in great emotional distress or have suicidal thoughts, please seek help.

Some suicide prevention helplines in India are:

www.snehaindia.org
24 hours suicide prevention helpline. Call 91-44-24640050
Email: help@snehaindia.org

Vandravela All India 24 hour Mental Health Helpline: 1860-266-2345 / 1800-233-3330
Email: help@vandrevalafoundation.com

TISS iCALL Psychosocial Helpline
Telephone based counseling: 022-25521111 (Monday to Saturday, 8 AM to 10 PM)
Email based counsellling: icall@tiss.edu
Chat based counseling: nULTA App ( Monday to Friday, 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM)

If you live in any other country, you can get a list of country based suicide helpline numbers at:

www.suicide.org

If you are looking for ways to have a helpful conversation with someone who may be suicidal, you can take a free suicide prevention training at:

https://www.zerosuicidealliance.com/

If you are a media person and are looking for media reporting guidelines, you can visit:

http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf

Parenting in midlife: Understanding Teenage Suicide

Parenting in midlife: Understanding teenage suicide.

“I will kill myself and blame it on you,” said one upset teenager to another. The other responded, “You wait and see, I will kill myself before that and blame it on you.” She then actually carried out the threat. This conversation is not from a soap opera on television. A parent’s worst nightmare – this is a true incident that happened between two school friends in rural India. And the girls were not on Blue Whale or any such app.

Luckily, medical professionals were able to save the girl’s life. But the school authorities asked her to stop coming to school. They did not want to deal with liability issues. The same school had lost a male student to suicide in the previous year. The rumour was that the boy had consumed pesticide because he was infatuated with a girl and there were some problems because of that. The same boy had lost his young male cousin to suicide a few years earlier. The reason for that suicide was apparently the same – love life issues. Infatuations and love affairs are highly disapproved of in rural Indian society. None of these kids showed any signs of clinical depression.

But this is not a scary scenario that only rural parents deal with. Over the past year, coincidentally, I worked with two 16 year old girls – both of whom had attempted suicide. One has a history of cutting, while the other has attempted suicide before. For both, the recent episode was triggered by a fight with other kids in school. The girls belong to families that are on opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. One studies at a well known, high end, private boarding school. The other studies at a rural, government school. Both seem to have concerned, caring parents. And both seem to have a decent relationship with their parents.

For parents of teenagers, this brings up many questions. Why do some teenagers play these life and death games? How does the thought of killing themselves as a way of proving a point, making a statement, or scoring one on the other, enter their minds? Teenagers have their entire lives ahead of them, why then do some feel that they have nothing to live for? Or, why do they believe that their current situation will never change and their problems will never be solved?

Parents often wish to think of childhood and youth as a care-free time. By the time their children are in their teenage years, most parents have hit midlife. In midlife, it is often difficult for parents to remember what their own teenage years were like. In addition, midlife typically brings its own specific stresses and strains. In the midst of dealing with their own midlife issues, most middle aged parents tend to look back at their own teenage years with nostalgia. But the fact is that teenage years are not an easy time for most young people. They go through as much anxiety and stress as adults do, albeit of a different kind. And they often deal with these stresses without the needed coping skills and support systems. Some facts to consider are:

Intense emotions

Parents often complain about their teenaged children blowing hot and cold, emotionally. The reason for their confusing behaviour is that teenagers experience their emotions more strongly than adults do. Hormonal fluctuations and a still developing brain are most often blamed for this phenomenon. Whatever be the exact reasons, most teenagers feel happiness with as great an intensity as sadness, disappointment, anger, and so on. As a parent it is important to understand that young people often get so deeply immersed in their feelings that it is difficult for them to take perspective. At such times, it is difficult for them to believe that there can be an end to their anger or sorrow.

Impulse control issues
Everyone – parents, schools, and teenagers, themselves – expects teenagers to behave very maturely. But the fact is that while they may have achieved their full height, their brain still has catching up to do. One of the biggest challenges for teenagers is learning to control their impulses. This challenge often infuriates and frustrates parents. Research has shown that young people usually know what is good for them and what is not. However, when faced with tempting but harmful choices, such as, drug/alcohol use or premature sexual behaviour, they are unable to make the right decision. So, knowledge and information often falls short in keeping them safe.

Inadequate coping ability

We, as parents, spend years figuring our what is the best way to cope with situations and build relationships that we can lean on in times of trouble. Despite that, we get into trouble – often relying on excess food and/or alcohol to help us feel better, even in midlife. Adolescents are just starting out on this journey of figuring out how to cope with the myriad situations that life can throw one’s way. They obviously have a long way to go. A lot of young people do not have role models or parents/other adults who can model healthy behaviours. More importantly, many young people do not have the kind of relationship with one or more adults that they need to be able to seek out or accept the adult’s help. This leaves them to their own devices, especially when they are confused about how to handle situations, stressed or in trouble. If they are able to find their path, they are lucky. If not, they are lost.

Negative peer influences

Like young birds learning to fly, teenagers have to make their tentative leaps at independent decision making. During this time they often rely on others of their age for guidance and support. One’s friends can, therefore, be a very big source of influence and determine whether one choses to act in ways that are harmful or beneficial for oneself. The good thing is that nature has made us all developmentally unequal – we learn to walk, talk and become capable of mature decisions at different ages. While we all catch up and eventually learn to walk – this inequality means that an immature 16 year old may become friends with a more emotionally mature 16 year old and learn from them. However, the reverse also happens or a bunch of equally immature kids become friends, leading themselves and each other into trouble.

Thinking in extremes and catastrophizing

While the teenage years are romanticized, they are often the most anxiety driven years of a person’s life. The rat race starts young. Teenagers experience pressure from parents, school, friends and themselves. They experience performance pressures, social pressures and the overwhelming belief that it has to all work out now, or never. Thinking is in black and white and all mistakes, shortcomings, flaws, failures, including failed romances, are catastrophized. Doom and gloom is predicted whether one loses a percentage point or gets a pimple on one’s face. Many young people believe that if they do not get a specific percentage in the board exams or do not get admitted to a specific college, they are doomed. If they are not clear about their career goals right now and have not charted an educational path right now, they will be career-less.

Instead of helping them moderate this tendency to think in extremes, most parents and teachers reinforce it. For example, parents often hold the mistaken belief that scaring teenagers with dire consequences will motivate them to study harder. In addition, teenagers go through peer pressure to conform. To be considered “popular” or worthy of being admitted to a group ruled by “popular” kids, makes many a teenager’s life miserable. No wonder then that this pressure cooker like atmosphere makes it difficult for some to live.

Societal contribution

The idea of suicide often comes from external sources. For most kids, unfortunately, the sources are many. These include apps/games like the blue whale app, reading or hearing about suicides through the media, and having a family member, classmate or known person commit suicide. Children who grow up in rural areas in India are often surrounded by stories of suicides committed by grown-ups known to them. The reasons reported may include shame, financial difficulties, loss of any kind, failed love relationship, etc. A young girl recently told me that whenever her parents get into an argument with each other, one or the other threatens to kill himself/herself. If we, as adults, portray suicide as a way of dealing with various situations, it is no surprise then that young people also resort to thinking about, threatening, or attempting suicide as a way of dealing with their problems.

Not just depression

These days, most people, including the media, seem to think that all people who commit suicide are depressed. It is a fact that people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, such as, moderate to severe clinical depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are vulnerable to suicide. However, all people who commit suicide do not meet the criteria for a mental illness. Often, teenagers carry out suicidal acts on an impulse when under severe emotional stress. Such kids feel extreme emotional pain and just want to stop feeling the way they do at the moment. If they survive the suicide attempt they often state that they did not actually want to kill themselves. They only wanted to put an end to their emotional distress.

Physical, sexual or emotional abuse can place a young person under great emotional stress. But even if a teenager was saved from traumatic experiences, the reasons given above may place some teenagers in an emotionally vulnerable state. A state or point in time when suicide seems to be the only option available. Because it is nearly impossible to guess or predict someone else’s state of mind, even if it is your own child, parents need to think of prevention.

Watch out for the next blog post on teenage suicide prevention.

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