Adolescent suicide is devastating for family, friends and their communities. The loss of a child or sibling leaves an abyss, typically accompanied by feelings of grief, helplessness, anger and questions about whether one could have done something more.
Fortunately, we now have a better understanding of some of the ways parents can help protect their child against suicidal ideation, suicidal behaviours and underlying depression.
Parents can work to create a safe haven in which their adolescent can come for understanding, warmth and loving support when times are hard.
Adolescents face a myriad of developmental challenges and stresses, including forming and maintaining social and romantic relationships, pressure to succeed academically and to figure out who they are and what they would like to do with their lives.
Some face additional challenges, such as mental illness, severe family conflict, loss due to divorce or death and victimisation due to their minority identity – racial, ethnic or sexual. These challenges may place them at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Though adolescence is characterised by increased time spent with peers, research shows that parents remain a critical resource during times of severe distress. When adolescents can go to their parents for support and guidance, and parents respond in a manner which lets the young person feel understood, cared for and validated, adolescents feel less alone and more hopeful, which can diminish feelings of depression and thoughts about suicide.
Moreover, when adolescents share their pain and confusion with their parents, parents are able to help them put words to their experience. This helps them to make sense of their world, express their emotions and needs more clearly, feel less overwhelmed emotionally and develop better coping strategies.
These capacities – perspective taking, emotion regulation and problem solving – further protect adolescents from depression and suicidal thoughts and acts.
Parents can also protect their adolescents by reducing levels of conflict, criticism and rejection in the home. These kinds of stresses are often associated with adolescent depression, suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviours.
Parental criticism and rejection are insidious for a number of reasons. When parents, the most important people in an adolescent’s life, make their child feel that something is wrong with them, that they are a burden, or not wanted, the child internalises these messages.
They begin to feel worthless, helpless, and that they are failures. Self-esteem decreases and self-criticism increases. Moreover, when parents are critical and rejecting, adolescents are less likely to use them as safe havens in times of need.
Having said this, it is not always easy for parents to provide a safe haven or refrain from being critical. Adolescents sometimes hide their distress or express it through irritability, defiance or withdrawal. Parents often mistake this for age-related moodiness or a natural separating from parental control, and fail to realise that their child is in distress.
Even when parents recognise that their adolescent is struggling, it is not always easy to get them to talk. Adolescents may lash out in frustration, push parents away, or provide short, superficial responses to inquiries about how they are doing or what is wrong. This can lead to parents feeling shut out, frustrated, unappreciated or even under attack, increasing the likelihood that they themselves will respond with frustration, anger and criticism.
Finding a way into the adolescent’s world in a way that makes them feel cared for and understood, rather than judged, controlled or criticised, is not easy, especially if parents themselves are struggling with their own stress.
When parents notice potential danger signs in their children and teens, they should immediately seek professional consultation. While intermittent conflicts and bad moods can be expected during adolescence, young people who consistently withdraw, are chronically irritable, or frequently seem sad should be evaluated.
Over the past few years, a number of family-based treatments for depressed and suicidal adolescents have been tested and found helpful. One such treatment is attachment-based family therapy (ABFT).
ABFT focuses on helping adolescents begin to put words to their experience and increasing their motivation to share their thoughts and feelings with their parents. At the same time, therapists help parents reach out to their adolescent in an open, non-accusatory, non-defensive manner to invite their child to share more about what is going on inside them.
ABFT has been shown to be effective in a number of clinical trials and the training of Irish therapists has begun.
Parents and carers can play a vital protective role for teens by providing warmth and support, refraining from harsh criticism, noticing warning signs and, when necessary, obtaining professional help.
Dr Gary Diamond is professor and chairman of the department of psychology, Ben-Gurion University. He is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and co-developer of attachment-based family therapy for depressed and suicidal adolescents.
For more information about helping your depressed or suicidal adolescent, go to the following websites: psychologicalsociety.ie/ find-a-psychologist; yourmentalhealth.ie; samaritans.org
Public talks on suicide prevention To coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, which was on September 10th, the Psychological Society of Ireland is hosting public talks to highlight and support suicide prevention.
Gary Diamond's public lecture takes place at the Red Hall of the Chartered Accountants House, 47 Pearse Street, Dublin 2, on Thursday, September 22nd, at 6.30 pm. To register to attend this event, see the Psychological Society of Ireland website, psychologicalsociety.ie. Follow the society on Twitter @PsychSocIreland.
The Psychological Society of Ireland is the learned and professional body for Psychology in the Republic of Ireland.