As a young teen, I contracted a migraine headache that lasted more than six months. I was poked and prodded by doctors as I endured blood draws, spinal taps and EKGs. Nothing helped. One night I was in so much pain that I downed an entire bottle of Tylenol and went back to bed. Half an hour later, I woke with excruciating stomach pain, was rushed to the hospital and had my stomach pumped.
That night, I opened up to my parents, helping them understand that my struggles were larger than my headaches. I had recently lost my great-grandfather, was at a new school in a new state and was constantly bullied and mocked by my peers. We soon started going to counseling, and through it, we were able to deepen our relationship and develop better methods of communication. And I started to heal.
Many teens and preteens struggle with putting words to their frustrations, fears, anxieties and sadness. Over time, those unprocessed feelings can lead to serious depression and suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds and the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.
Is it time you had a conversation with your kids about suicide? Here is how to confidently enter into this conversation:
Mental and emotional wellness
Before starting the conversation, consider how attuned you are to your own emotional and mental health. As parents, we must understand what is going on inside of us. Why? Because our teens will mirror us.
Next, observe the overall mood of your home and determine whether it is a safe place to have a conversation. Is there usually space and freedom for emotional expression? Because of the changes taking place in their bodies and minds, teens can be highly emotional. Having a place to freely express their emotions creates the ability to have conversations about feelings, mental health issues and other struggles.
The No. 1 thing I hear from teens in my counseling practice is that they wish their parents would just listen without trying to fix a problem or offer advice.
Defining success in life is difficult, as it can look different for each family and each person. However, it is an important concept for teens to examine. Far too often, people who struggle with depression and anxiety seem to have it all together on the outside. Do your teens understand that you value emotional and spiritual health over academic and extracurricular success?
Our teenagers are under a lot of pressure to succeed. Our culture promotes a narrow view of learning that outlines the path to success in concrete terms. (Good grades equal acceptance to a good college, which leads to a successful career.) This singular definition of success can put teens in a box, adding undue pressure. This can produce suicidal thoughts as a form of escape.
Help your teens re-evaluate what success means and encourage them to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. (In other words, trying your best is more important than a stellar grade; trying out for a team is more important than starting every game.)
Next, commit to discovering together who God has uniquely created your teenager to be. How are their interests and abilities different from what is celebrated at school and on the field? How might those traits be nurtured and applied? This conversation alone could relieve your teen of a lot of pressure.
Remove suicide as an option
Finally, take the option of suicide off the table. I know this comes across as a silly statement, but many teens tell me that no one has ever told them that suicide is not an option. Though this might seem like common sense to us parents, a lot of teens have not made that cognitive connection. Sometimes we must state the obvious.
This is not, of course, an exhaustive list of how to talk with your teen about this topic. In fact, these conversations on mental and emotional health should be just the beginning of an ongoing openness in your family to face and process life's challenges together.
For more information about prevention of suicide and help for those struggling with suicide, please go to http://alivetothrive.com.
Dr. Mark A. Mayfield has been a counselor to at-risk teens, families and couples for more than 10 years. He is the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.