For parents, there is nothing more important than their children. Shockingly, suicide and accidental death from self-harm were the third cause of adolescent mortality in 2015, resulting in an estimated 67, 000 deaths worldwide (World Health Organisation). Even though bonds between parent or guardian and child are innately strong, the teenage years can be difficult and fraught with danger if these bonds are not maintained and ideally, deepened. Your teenager needs to know you support their independence, but that you are also there to support them in navigating their way through a sometimes challenging and threatening world.
The Netflix Show, 13 Reasons Why reinforces the very real dangers that teenagers can face. In the series on teenage suicide, seventeen-year-old, Hannah Baker, leaves behind 13 cassette tapes recorded for school peers she feels contributed to her choice to commit suicide by bullying, mistreating or isolating her. The show, having gained widespread popularity amongst an audience of mostly teenagers, is scheduled to return in 2018. Despite its popularity, however, 13 Reasons Why has been criticised by mental-health experts, child psychologists, teachers and parents alike for glorifying and rationalising suicide as a means through which to seek revenge, gain power and solve problems.
According to Kirsten Douglas, National Manager of Headspace School Support, there has been an increase in the number of calls and emails about suicide in response to 13 Reasons Why. People have reported that the series triggered their vulnerabilities and made them consider suicide a viable option. This supports findings that exposure to fictional accounts of suicide can facilitate suicidal thoughts in vulnerable teens (Velting & Gould 1997) and is cause for grave concern, given eight young people commit suicide every week in Australia (ABS 2016).
The series does emphasise its intended messages clearly—that talking about suicide is still considered taboo, that all actions have consequences and that being kind to others could save a life—though there are moments in which, true to real-life suicides, suicide is not approached from a rationalist perspective. More could be done to portray other factors and issues that can exacerbate teenagers having suicidal thoughts such as hormonal activity and the ability of teenagers’ developing brains to cope with stress.
Low self-esteem, combined with peer group pressure and hormonal changes, can make the teenage years very challenging. That is why open channels of communication and a reliable support system such as parents, siblings, teachers, friends and counsellors, can help teenagers to cope through what can be a difficult, yet wonderful, stage in life.
The rapid hormonal changes taking place in teenagers’ bodies often influence their moods and decision making. Hormones are the chemicals that cause the physical growth and sexual development that carry teenagers through their teens and into adulthood. The adolescent brain pours out adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormones which, in turn, influence brain development. The production of testosterone increases ten times in adolescent boys. Sex hormones act in the limbic system and in the raphe nucleus, the source of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important for the regulation of arousal and mood.
The hormonally regulated 24-hour clocks change their settings during adolescence, keeping high school and college students often awake late into the night and making it difficult to rise for morning classes (Harvard Health Publications). This is because melatonin flows into their brains later, at around 10:30 pm and stays longer. Most teenagers’ brains aren’t ready to wake up until 8 or 9 in the morning. It is important to note that teenagers who don’t get enough sleep don’t tend to do as well at school and are more likely to feel sad or hopeless (Andrew Fuller).
Being a teenager can be a risky time. All the hormonal changes that teenagers experience during puberty are natural and healthy, yet teenagers do not always react to these changes in a safe and healthy way. Even though you may have laid a good foundation in the previous years of your child’s life, the rapid hormonal and physical changes in their body, peer group pressure and added expectations with study and social demands, can create a very confusing time for teenagers. This is why it’s important to have caring adults or accessible role models that they respect feel comfortable talking to. Guardians can act as a valuable sounding board to help teenagers sort out any confusion they may be experiencing.
Dr Barry Feldman from The University of Massachusetts Medical School, explains that teenagers are more likely than adults, to feel overwhelmed when experiencing emotional pain. This is because of the ways our brains develop. The neocortex which is the brain region used for planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour, is the last part of the brain to develop and has often not fully done so until the mid-twenties (Mental Health Daily). As a result, the parts of teenagers’ brains responsible for feeling and storing emotions associated with impulses—the hippocampus and amygdala—can be the more predominant means through which a teenager processes external information.
The natural order in which a brain develops means that teenagers are often not equipped with adequate problem-solving skills to be able to draw connections between what they are feeling and what they are thinking. That is why during an overwhelming time, it is important for teenagers to have an adult who can help reason through a challenging situation. You need to help your teenager think things through until their brain is developed enough (during their late teen or early twenties), to handle complexities themselves.
Throw in the everyday struggles teenagers may face such as bullying, the pressure to succeed at school, dissatisfaction with their appearance, being in a minority or sexual orientation, substance abuse or fractured relationships with loved ones and it is no surprise teenagers may feel as though suicide is the only way to escape the pain.
For these reasons, parents need to feel cautious about letting their teenager watch 13 Reasons Why (rated 15+ for a mature audience). Do not let your child watch the show unless they are over 15. It has this rating for a reason. Some of the scenes are very graphic and confronting. If your child wants to watch it, it is a good idea to watch it with them and discuss the themes and any concerns they may have. Your rational support will be helpful to them in processing the show in a healthy way.
In relation to potential suicide, there are many warning signs that parents can watch for, including withdrawal, avoidance of activities, self-harm, problem behaviours, substance abuse, changes in eating habits, sleep disturbance and personality changes. However, as explored in 13 Reasons Why, sometimes these signs aren’t apparent, and suicide can come as a shock to families who thought everything was going okay.
Providing a protective parental buffer and filter to our sometimes harsh and cruel world is critical in bringing up a healthy, happy teenager. You are there to help them rationalise the world until they can do so themselves. Parental buffering is the most effective way to keep your teenager safe and reinforce to them how precious they are. They need caregivers who are leaders and role models in their life.
Nonetheless, teenagers need increasing responsibility and independence while being supported by caring and loving adults. This will assist them in developing life skills to help them work their way through any challenges. A teenager needs to believe that, even though they may be having a difficult time, life can (and will) get better.
Keep your teenager safe by:
1. Being available.Nothing substitutes for the quality time you spend with your teenager, creating a stable bond—not money, presents or holidays. More than anything in the world, your teenager needs to know that you have got their back and are there for them when they need you. They are becoming more independent, however, do not decrease your emotional support during the teenage years.
According to The Office of National Statistics, a typical working mother spends as little as 19 minutes a day with her children; working fathers even less. As children turn into teenagers, they have lots of questions about the world. Spending quality time with them is important in allowing them to work through the often big questions they have about life.
Time in the car with your teenager can be a great opportunity to listen to what is going on in their world. Don’t pressure or push your teenager to communicate with you. Sometimes they are feeling moody (teenage hormones) or overwhelmed by the day they have just had. Sometimes, they need some space to process their thoughts and emotions before they are ready to talk to anyone; sometimes, we adults feel like this, too. The important thing is not to take your teenager’s need for distance or space personally. When they are ready, they will come to you, and if you have a good bond and regular time together, they will open up naturally.
It is important for parents and guardians to be in tune with their teenager’s emotions and mood, to notice changes. If you make space and time to chat to your child as a ritual, from when they are very young, right through to adulthood, being connected to them will remain a natural way of being. It is always easier to fix problems while they are small. You are more likely to know about them at this stage when you have regular, healthy communication with your child.
Asking how your teenager feels, at the right time can make the world of difference in how supported and loved they feel. Even if they act like it is annoying, in their heart, they will know that you are only asking because you care and are there for them.
The teenage years are a precious gift—share that time with them. Let them know they are number one to you and you are always there for them, no matter what. Supporting your teenager can be done in a healthy, balanced way, where you have a career and a full life too and your needs are respected and valued. Treat time with your teenager as sacred and let other things work around it.
2. Listening to them. Really listening to your child can take practice. It involves being present, in the here and now, rather than letting your mind drift onto other matters such as your work or the shopping list. When you are present for your teenager, they can sense it and are more likely to open up to you with any concerns they may have.
Basic counselling skills can be helpful such as not interrupting while your teenager is talking. When they have finished talking, it can be helpful to name their feelings if they seem overwhelmed. This will help them process their emotions. For example, if they have told you a story about a friend that is saying one thing and doing another, you could say to your teenager, “you sound confused”. This will give them valuable life skills as they learn to tune into and acknowledge their feelings.
Be careful with your advice. Try to work things out in a collaborative way. However, around health and safety, it can be essential to be highly directive and take control. Around important issues, they are often searching for boundaries to feel safe and looking for immediate answers.
3. Leading and mentoring. It is important to remember that you are an adult. Teenagers want parents who are resilient, wise, kind and gentle—someone they can look up to and trust. In many cases, when a parent is absent emotionally or physically for a child, the child is forced to take on extra responsibility—becoming a ‘parentified’ child. Ideally, a child is free to be a child, taking on increasing and incremental responsibility, until they are eighteen or so and able to be fully independent in the world.
It’s okay to say “no” to your teenager if you think that certain things they want or want to do are not in their best interests. or, for that matter, the family’s best interests. This will teach them to think more about others, rather than just themselves and how to work together as a team. These are important life skills.
Parents need to be the trusted leaders—not dominating or controlling—but in a loving way. Your leadership enables children to feel secure and models to them how to be in control of their life. Teenagers then feel that their needs, emotionally and physically, are supported and valued, facilitating a healthy level of self-esteem.
4. Role Modelling. The most effective form of parenting is through modelling. How can you expect your teenager to talk to you if you never make time to talk to them? If you have good communication and life mastery skills, that is what they will pick up from you.
If, as a parent, you feel overwhelmed by your situation or emotions, it is worthwhile to get the emotional support you need externally. Taking care of and nurturing yourself is important so that you can give, as parents or caregivers, from a place of abundance. Stepping into your confident and present self is the best gift you can give your children. This does not have to be tomorrow and it is not about being perfect; it is about leading the way by example. In fact, it is healthy to let your teenager know that you make mistakes, too and that they can be helpful learning experiences if we learn and evolve from them.
5. Being approachable. Don’t be afraid to talk about the difficult things—suicide, sex, drugs and alcohol—if those are the topics that your teenager wants to share with you. Someone they know may have shared with them that they want to commit suicide, for example. Do not show your panic, even if you feel it inside. It is important to remain calm and collected for your teenager as they are, understandably, probably panicking.
Educate your child that if someone mentions they would like to commit suicide, this is a cry for help. They need to get the support of someone who can help them through those feelings. If your child is talking to you about their own suicidal thoughts, being there for them shows them you care and will support them through the emotional pain.
Reinforce to your child that they can talk to you about anything. This may not be in terms of words, so much as your energy and responsiveness to what they are telling you. If they tell you something they think you won’t like and that is controversial, getting angry with them can make them less likely to tell you difficult things in the future. Keep a non-judgemental, open attitude.
Teenagers are frequently confronted with things before they are ready. As the parent, we need to be the voice of reason. Drugs are illegal, alcohol has an over 18 limit and sex is for adults. This is all for a good reason, as letting children play adult games often has confusing and damaging consequences to their self-esteem.
When your child tells you something that you are concerned about, stay in a loving place. Question the issue or behaviour. Your child is likely to be bringing it up as they are concerned too. Give them your wise, loving, rational perspective, while asking them to tune into their intuition and what they think. Between the two of you, you will be able to work through the situation. If not, go away and find out more information, or get the help of a professional. You could even phone a support line while you are together to get some immediate support in an urgent situation.
Discussions around uncomfortable feelings are essential foundations in your child feeling supported. They can be a doorway for growth and a gateway for hope and relief, particularly if they have been holding onto overwhelming feelings.
6. Encouraging help-seeking behaviours. Model to your teenager that it is not possible to know everything and that this is okay. It is normal to feel challenged from time to time, however, during these times it is essential to get support when you need it. Teach them this by getting support yourself when you need it. Explain that when you are struggling, you may refer to a book, make a phone call or appointment with a professional, or search the internet. Teach them how to ask the right questions to find what they are looking for. If they visit a therapist, assist them in finding one that is a good fit for them by making an investigative phone call, before booking an appointment. Ensure that they know how to tap into their intuition (more about this in point 9) so that they know if the support is right for them.
7. Giving positive feedback. Let your teenager know that you love and value them, every day. This can be energetically too—give them lots of hugs. Sadly, teenagers and the elderly are the least hugged members of society. Teenage angst, the need to fit in with peers and the growing desire for independence may make them seem like they don’t need your hugs, however, they need them more than ever.
A child needs four hugs a day for survival,
eight for maintenance and 12 for growth
Be mindful of the words you use with your teenager. Are they life-enhancing or going to undermine their confidence and sense of security in some way? Interact positively with your teenager—give them consistent feedback and learn how to pick your battles. You might assume they know how much you love and value them, however, nothing beats telling them, particularly when life outside is sometimes challenging. Compliment them for all the great things they do but be honest in your praise, as teenagers can tell if what you are saying is not honest and doing so might damage their trust in you.
If you need to tell them something more confronting, the Sandwich Technique can be very effective. You say an honest, positive comment, followed by the more confronting feedback, and finish with an honest comment. This balances your feedback so your teenager feels endorsed while knowing there is something that you would like them to pay attention to. For example: “Alex, I am so pleased you are having so much fun going out with your friends. It is also essential that you are home by your 11 o’clock curfew though. This is a warning, and if it happens again, it will feel like I can’t trust you over this agreement. I feel I can trust you and I love that you are growing up to be such a fine young man”.
8. Promoting positive self-talk. This point flows from the one above. The voice in many adults heads is often the voice of their parent. If you speak to your teenager in a life-enhancing, loving way and you are a major influence in their life, they will develop kind self-talk automatically.
If they seem to be self-critical or say things that aren’t supporting their best interests, it’s okay to confront them lovingly. This will help them to be more self-aware. Teach them to listen to their self-talk and make positive changes if it is not supporting them.
9. Allowing them to tap into their intuition. Children are born naturally intuitive. Their intuition is the internal voice that safely guides them on their path through life. As parents, it is up to you to nurture this very special gift and not to override it with fear. To nurture your children’s intuition, encourage them to listen to that gentle voice within.
Allowing children to know themselves is another wonderful gift. As a result, they will have the ability to be true to themselves and not be influenced by others, in ways that don’t feel right for them. This is particularly important for getting them through the teenage years safely and later on, for making important life decisions such as choosing the right career and the right partner.
To develop their intuition, put questions back onto your teenager by asking things such as: What do you think you would do? or How do you think you would feel in that situation? Getting them to answer their questions teaches them to feel confident in tapping into their inner wisdom and come up with answers, in a supported way.
10. Teaching coping skills. As well as teaching your child to tap into their intuition, give them basic conflict resolution skills. Teach them to listen to others, to be able to take a break if the conflict is too heated and to come back to it later if they need to. Teach your teenager to be able to tap into their inner resilience and to believe that they are resilient and wise and that they have the ability to work things out.
Encourage them to make loving win/win decisions for themselves and others, rather than ones based on fear and stress. Learning to meditate and to appreciate the calming qualities of nature can help them to develop a strong mind with clarity. If you model healthy eating and exercise, your teenager is likely to value these things too. A healthy lifestyle is particularly important when it comes to helping regulate their hormones. Food moderation is the most important thing. Do allow your child to enjoy occasional junk food with their friends.
11. Creating a support network. Even if you have a great relationship with your child and feel as though you can talk about anything, it’s always great if they can have other role models and healthy influences in their life. This may be an aunt or uncle, a close adult family friend, teacher or school counsellor, for example. This gives them lots of different influences and support. I love the saying it takes a village to raise a child. It’s wonderful to bring a child up with a sense of community.
If you are unable to communicate with your child, seek the skills from books, professionals or the internet, to develop an open and trusting relationship. A professional therapist can help you address any issues that are preventing you from giving the support your child needs.
Your teenager must always feel they have a way out rather than feeling trapped. Someone they can trust, talk to and get help them so that they can make sense of a situation when they are feeling overwhelmed or distressed.
12. Taking immediate action. If you sense your child or someone they know is in real danger, this is a time to take action. A child saying they are going to commit suicide it is a definite cry for help. It is too late after the event to help them. When suicide is mentioned, immediate support should be given. Never have the attitude that they are putting it on for attention or dismiss it as something that will naturally ‘fix’ itself in time. These types of attitudes could be enabling and allow the situation to escalate. In relation to suicide, it is definitely better to be safe than sorry.
Get the help of a professional who is experienced in dealing with suicide prevention, if you feel out of your depth. If your teenager agrees to professional support, ensure that they relate well to the person offering guidance, either through recommendations or by having a good track record. The research is worth it; you don’t want your child to be put off therapy by a bad experience. For the therapy to work, it must be done with someone they will listen to and respect.
There are plenty of comprehensive programs and support systems in place within Australia based on countering suicide rates through community and resilience-building initiatives. Reachout provides parents with some useful resources at https://parents.au.reachout.com and Headspace has extended their phone line for parents at 1800 650 890.
13. Showing you value them. Let your teenager know they are always divine, precious and valuable, no matter what. Teach them that their value comes from within and that their own self-perception is more important than what other people think of them. It is entirely possible for other well-meaning adults to unconsciously say or do things that will contribute to your child feeling less about themselves. That is why it is important to teach your teenager to question things in these situations and never let others’ opinions override their positive self-esteem.
There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children.
One of these is roots, the other, wings
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
No child should feel as though they cannot continue with the state of life as it is and no parent should feel alone in trying to prevent or intervene in issues relating to suicide.
Knowing they are in a safe, loving, supportive environment helps teenagers feel they can discuss troubling thoughts and feelings without judgement. This can prevent issues from building up and becoming potentially overwhelming and unmanageable in the minds of a teenager. In most cases, those who commit suicide feel isolated and hopeless in their ability to overcome their burdens by themselves.
Too many of our teenagers are crying out for help, to be loved and to be valued. Let them know how brightly their life shines, despite the inherent challenges of life. This way, they can feel free to experience a wonderful journey in which they play a valuable and worthy part.