This is a very disturbing topic and difficult to write about because there may be so many layers of experience that a person goes through before he/she takes the extreme step. It’s been known to be on the rise amongst children, which makes it important to explore as a social phenomenon, to see what we can do to prevent it.
Why children turn to it and what can you do
It’s a disturbing phenomenon to hear about teen suicides, which are on a rise nowadays more than ever before. “The neighbor’s son hung himself because he feared the upcoming board exams” or “another teenager jumped from a high-rise with a suicide note in his pocket saying his girlfriend didn’t love him enough”. Day after day the newspapers are packed with stories such as these. As parents and caretakers, it is of grave concern to us, as to why young people don’t value their lives enough. A small trigger is enough for them to throw away a life full of experiences and untapped potential. Suicides, in general, don’t just impact the family of the person in question but also have an impact on the community at large- friends, teammates, school acquaintances, neighbors, and so on. Even people who would have barely known the person who committed suicide will wonder why the person took such an extreme step.
While it is important for parents to bring up their children to be confident teenagers capable of handling life’s ups and downs, it is equally important for them to understand the psychology that goes behind a suicide.
What is teen suicide all about?
Although suicide and suicide attempts in children are rare, as adolescence begins the rate of suicide has been seen to increase tremendously. Now as adults, we might not remember the time of adolescence when we were stuck between childhood and adulthood, but if you think back, it was surely a time full of confusion and frustration. This was a period of anxiety and despair, where we had to cope with situations where we were expected to behave like adults but didn’t know how to. We were expected to use our maturity to deal with situations that presented themselves to us-but we did not feel mature enough to do so. Our teenage children are in the same boat today as we were a few years ago. It’s only more difficult for them because society has advanced manifolds over the past few years. Where our choices were limited (whether it be entertainment, or things to buy and flaunt, or career avenues, or anything else), today’s children have a plethora of choices in every sphere of their life. These and many other changes in society have made growing up in today’s world more challenging. Some of these environmental issues combined with the already somewhat immature state of mind of a child in his adolescence create a pressurized environment and affect their mental state.
Teenagers’ hormones affect their moods. While their hormones are playing havoc with their body, there is also the onset of sexual feelings. This is the time when young adults are grappling with self-identity and trying to resolve constant conflicts of expectations and feelings. That is why the perfectly sweet 12 years old will start becoming moody and difficult to handle as she steps into her teens. Parents and friends can easily make out that the child is in a bad mood and may seem to have become quiet or withdrawn. They may try to talk to her to find out the reason and make her feel better by discussing it. However, if the bad mood persists for an unusual length of time or is more intense than what is normally observed in the person, it may be depression. We need to understand that depression is not an attitude or mood. Depressed people cannot shake themselves out of depression, but need help in doing so. Most of the time people who are depressed don’t understand what they are going through and don’t take their situation seriously. Depression is thought to be a taboo in some strata of society in India even now and families do not acknowledge that a person is going through depression. The first thing to do is to acknowledge it to yourself -and not to be in denial. Because only then will you take positive steps to help your child who is in no condition to help herself. See if you can work with your child to find the reason for her depression and help her out of it. If it doesn’t work, seek professional help. Do not hesitate to seek professional help for societal reasons-your a child’s health is more important than what society thinks.
As parents, we try and provide everything that our child needs and wants. Some parents do not know where to draw the line and may start giving in to every demand that the child makes. They shower their children with things that are not needed or can wait a few years. The age at which children are getting cell phones, iPods, digital cameras, and the like from their parents is decreasing by the day. Such children are unable to handle denial. If they want it, they should have it. Unfortunately, as they grow up, everything they will need is not for sale. If they want to be friends with a certain group, it can’t be provided by the parents. If they want admission to a certain college which all the friends are going to after school ends, the parents can’t buy it. The inability to handle denial drives them to frustration because they can’t relate to this feeling of helplessness and of not getting what they want. Such children are seen to develop suicidal tendencies.
Parents must understand the long term consequences of their actions when they pamper their children. They must make the child understand that they have to make an effort to get some things. Create situations at home where the child has to work towards saving their pocket money to buy an expensive thing that they want. Or get good grades in the final exams to go for a holiday that they want. That way they will understand that effort is required to get what they want.
- Pressures to perform
The education system in some countries requires parents to pay excessive attention to grades and marks. It is not the fault of the parents, but of the education system which encourages the mad race for higher marks. Children in the higher classes are seen to be taking extra classes, studying long hours, and feeling very pressurized to get good marks. A lot of parents also decide the career the child is to make, well in advance without looking at the child’s interests and aptitudes. This creates an even bigger pressure on the children because they feel that they have to live up to the parent’s expectations. The children in such homes become very tense and everyone lives on tenterhooks till the exam results are out. And God forbid if the results are not what they should have been, and then gloom spreads over the household- as if this were the end of life as we know it!
Parents need to be realistic. We are not recommending that children should not be encouraged to study or to get good marks. They should. Good marks will help them keep their options open for higher studies in many streams. All we are saying is that don’t create a pressure cooker kind of situation at home where everyone is ready to blow with the slightest nudge. Make your child understand the importance of getting good marks and also discuss the options that they will open up for themselves by doing so. Maintain a normal home environment where they can study peacefully instead of an environment where everyone goes around with all their anxiety written on their faces. You must also look at helping the child choose a line of work based on their aptitude. Children may not be able to understand how to apply their natural skills to a line of work. Here’s where you can help. Draw a parallel between their natural temperaments and the kinds of things that would suit them. For instance, if your child is a natural athlete, look at a career in sports. If she is a natural-born singer, train her in music, as she may want to take it up professionally. If your child hates routine then possibly an office job is not the right thing for her and she should look at being a self-employed professional where she can decide the time of her work. Talk to a career counselor to discuss the options and choose well.
If children are driven to the edge where they feel they can’t deliver to your expectations, or they are driven to a career they dislike, they may develop suicidal tendencies. We hear of so many cases of this kind in the newspapers every year especially around the time when the exam results are declared. Tell your child that you will love them no matter what. Let them feel this bond through these trying times.
- Home environment and conflicts
Parents may push the child to do things he dislikes or may constantly nag him about commonplace things (cut your hair shorter, get off the phone, keep your room tidy, turn down the music etc ). Teenagers normally resent this and are prone to thinking that their parents do not understand them and that their world is far out of the comprehension of their parents (without realizing that their parents were also teenagers at one time) Some teenagers also go through feelings of being ignored or not loved etc. These feelings may take deeper roots if the lines of communication between the parent and the child are not open. In such situations children turn to people outside the home for emotional support-which normally comes from other teenagers! (which you will agree may not be the best form of help). What they need at such a time is to be able to resolve these conflicts in their minds and allow them to see the right from the wrong. Remember that when your child is already going through growth-related problems-you can be his best friend, philosopher, and guide. While your child may not turn to you for help in an active manner, you can help just by keeping open lines of communication. Keep conflicts to a minimum, and let your child know and feel that they can turn to you for help when they want. Don’t let this problem escalate into a depression.
Teenagers, who actively participate in activities, have friends, peer groups and religious affiliations find ample opportunities to air their feelings. They can vent out feelings of neglect and negativism when in groups by talking. However, teenagers who don’t associate with social groups of any kind might find it difficult to cope with the anxiety that they go through. If your child is one of those who don’t mix around much, you must give him or her added attention and support to vent these frustrations.
If you find that the depression and suicidal tendencies are due to failure-reinforce that failure is just a chance to better yourself at things-be forgiving.
Remember that it is most important to have open communication with your teenagers and adolescents to know how they are feeling. If they are depressed then you must help them get over it and show them the brighter side of life.
Who is the high-risk segment?
Teenagers who have a decent social group might be at a lesser risk of suicide than those who don’t. Teenagers who have a psychological disorder, (depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse), also fall in the high-risk category. Research has shown that almost 95% of the people who die by suicide have some disorder at the time of death. Also, kids who have no self-worth or experience feelings of hopelessness may find themselves prone to ending their life. These children often experience repeated failures in school or college, have troubled families, or are finding it difficult to fit into any group. Children who are unable to accept failures also fall in the high-risk category. Also if there have been any cases of suicide in the family, then the tendency to try suicide may be higher.
Children or teenagers who have suffered from physical abuse also are at higher risk. Homosexuality in a family or peer group, who refuse to understand it, is often a trigger for depression and suicide in teenagers and adolescents.
Breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, pressures from family, disruptive family life, repeated failures at school, divorce, or the death of a loved one can trigger off suicide
Teenagers who have attempted suicide in the past must also be monitored closely and care must be taken to nurture them even more than before. A feeling of self-worth and positivity must be ingrained in them. They must be taught to forgive themselves. And like we said earlier in this article, parents must teach children that failures are stepping stones to success, and with time, patience, and hard work, they will achieve what they are striving to achieve. Explain to children that suicide or ending your life is a rather big step and does not solve any problem in life.
Signs of warning
A teenager who is contemplating ending his life might often talk about suicide or death in general. They might start glorifying death and how it brings peace. They might communicate that they will be going away or soon all their troubles will end. They might also start inflicting cuts or physical pain on themselves, which is a vital sign that should not go unnoticed. If you find cuts or burn marks on your child’s body, you must sit down and have a serious conversation with them about the same.
Teenagers on the verge of ending their lives might also start keeping a distance from friends and family, and/or be quieter than normal. They might also pull away from their favorite activities and refrain from enjoyment. Some may want to get their life in order and give away the stuff they love. They might talk to a great extent about feeling hopeless without worth or guilt. You must at this point tell them how everyone goes through ups and downs in life, and that it doesn’t make them worthless. Give them hope.
When teenagers are contemplating suicide, there might be a visible change in their eating and sleeping patterns. They will also have trouble thinking straight and concentrating. A drop in grades suddenly could be a warning sign, which you must not ignore. Such teenagers might also start indulging in risky behavior such as driving too fast, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, etc.
If you do see these signs, ask them what can change by suicide or hurting themselves. Help them put things in perspective by talking about the important spheres in their life- school, friends, love, passions, relationships, and family. Let them know how ending their life will hurt you and all the people that they know immensely, but not solve any of the existing problems. Help them find solutions for their worries.
Other ways in which a parent can help
- Most of the teenagers who have suicide on their minds or are contemplating taking this drastic step will show some signs. As parents, you need to be able to recognize these signs, and help them yourself or get external help, as you deem fit.
- Watch, be attentive, and listen: Always monitor your teenager who seems depressed and or withdrawn. If some big incident is taking place in your child’s life, be there with them through it. This could be another year of bad grades, or repeated rejection from the basketball team, or a huge fight with friends. Any incident that triggers different behavior is a warning sign for you.
- TLC: When any such incident does occur, make sure to spend extra time with your child, and shower lots of TLC (tender love and caring) on them. Express your concern, support, and love. Talk to them and make sure that all conversations are two way.
- Do not ridicule or find fault with your child: This will only push him or her further away from you into depression. Their current problem might not seem big enough to you, but for the child, it might be his entire world. A small fight with a close friend might seem like the world has crashed around them. So be sensitive to their feelings. Be positive and help them see hope and light at the end of every tunnel
- Someone to confide in; If your teenager doesn’t find it comfortable to open up and speak with you, try and find a more neutral person; he or she can communicate with. This could be a favorite aunt or relative, a school counselor, or maybe even a friend’s mother or his or her doctor. To sort out the confusion in their minds, they must give vent to their feelings.
- Get Direct: Don’t shy away from asking questions to your child, if you suspect they are contemplating hurting themselves or committing suicide. Parents often fear that by asking direct questions, they might implant the thought of such actions in the child’s mind. Even though you find yourself tongue-tied to broach the topic, don’t shy away. Just go ahead and ask them. Tell them that you are worried about their behavior and want to talk to them. For example, you could say, “I have been hearing you talk a lot about going away, and not being around anymore. Where is it that you want to go away? To a new city maybe ?” This could be the starting point for an emotional break for your child, who may then open up and speak with you.
If this approach doesn’t work, tell them how important they are to so many people in this world and how they are immensely loved and how shattered your life will be without them. Try and get them to voice the problem. If you suspect that the reason is bad grades, bring it up and let them know that you appreciate their efforts and that’s what matters and if they consistently try to improve, things will get better. Or if you think the problem is a love relationship, tell them that all relationships are a 2-way street and both individuals must make an effort to keep the relationship alive. Then ask them about their relationships with friends etc. We are recommending keen observation, gentle probing, or even direct questioning depending on the temperament of your child and the openness of the relationship.
External help might be needed
If your gut feels and the signs around you tell you that the child is seriously contemplating the worst, and you haven’t been able to help, immediately seek the help of a qualified counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist or doctor.
If you have decided to meet the doctor, make sure that you go ahead with the appointment even if your child seems fine on the day of the appointment. Suicidal thoughts are fleeting. They might come and go. Hence a visit with an expert might help the teenager develop the necessary skills and thoughts to get out of crises even when they develop later on in life.
Suicide is a very serious matter- and we recommend you involve health professionals at an early stage if you suspect your child any suicidal tendencies.
Top Questions on Suicide
- What are the signs and symptoms that will tell me that my child may be suicidal?
- My child constantly asks me about death. Why is this so and should I worry?
- Why do people commit suicides? Is it preventable?
- What is the best treatment for a depressed child so that she doesn’t become suicidal?
- If a person tries to commit suicide once and fails, are they likely to try again?