Suicide is not an option: Useful ways parents can help their teens

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“No matter how many reasons there might be why there are always more why not."
“No matter how many reasons there might be why there are always more why not."

According to the South African Society of Psychiatrists, "one in ten teenage deaths in South Africa every year are the result of suicide."

And alarmingly, SASOP says, "Up to 20% of high school learners have tried to take their own lives". 

Recent news has tragically placed faces to these concerning statistics, highlighting the ongoing need to reassure teens that help is always at hand. 

Below we explore the various issues that plague our teens, from bullying to dealing with disappointment. Here's what parents can do to help. 

1. Dealing with bullying 

In addition to the kind of bullying you may have experienced as a teen, thanks to the internet, your child is also at risk of being bullied via the web. 

According to research, 25% of SA parents say their child has been a victim of cyberbullying, and that South Africa has the overall highest incidence of cyberbullying in the world. 

Whether online or real-life, bullying is detrimental to a child's mental health, with experts suggesting that "bullying is as harmful as child abuse, if not worse." 

It can result in a teen developing mental and emotional disorders including severe depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your child may not tell you if they are being bullied due to fear or a lack of awareness of what bullying is, especially the cyber kind. 

According to researchers, the major signs of bullying is a notably lowered self-esteem, unwarranted bouts of anger and trust issues. 

Read more on how to spot the signs of bullying here

Being especially aware of these signs is important for parents since "bullying effects are often related... low self-esteem is related to depression, depression is related to suicidal ideation, and so on," explains investigative psychology expert Calli Tzani Pepelasi. 

Also read: Teen girls are three times more likely to experience cyberbullying: Tips to help her cope

What parents can do

Codes of conduct on how to deal with bullying vary from school to school but it's really a parent's support that makes the biggest difference. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) recommends taking the following steps: 

  • If you feel your child may be bullied, take the straight-forward approach and ask.
  • Listen attentively and do not dismiss them.
  • Be careful not to blame your child.
  • Let them know that talking to you about it is the right thing.
  • Don't make promises to keep the bullying a secret.
  • Do not expect them to 'get over it' or work it out by themselves. 
  • Talk about what can be done. 
  • Do some research on self-confidence, assertiveness and social skills and teach them a few strategies.
  • Consider suitable extramural activities they would enjoy, especially ones that would make socialising easier.
  • Talk to teachers and other parents there may be other kids going through the same. 

Also read: Has your teen been exposed to suicide on social media? Here's how to help

2. Dealing with disappointment

Failures and rejection of all kinds are not only a regular occurrence during adolescence, but all through life, so it can be easy for parents to get frustrated with their teens' inability to see the glass as half full. 

It's easy to resort to the commonly held belief that a teen is 'just being dramatic', but according to one researcher, it's their still-developing brain that makes it harder for a teen to process disappointment. 

"... they tend to catastrophise problems," explains Rachael Sharman, senior lecturer in psychology at Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast. 

In her article How to talk to your child about suicide, she says teens "legitimately lack the brainpower to foresee long-term consequences of their actions... they tend to live in the moment and are egocentric, impulsive and emotional in their decision-making." 

What parents can do

Sport and parenting psychologist Jim Taylor recommends that parents keep their reaction to their child's disappointments positive, and to avoid downplaying the situation.

Via Psychology Today, Jim recommends parents try to redirect their teen's attention to the bigger picture and that there are always options for improvement no matter how bleak a situation may seem. 

"You can also give your children a boost by showing them that you believe in them, that they should have faith in themselves," he advises. 

Also see: Seen a dramatic change in your teen since lockdown began? A local psychologist advises

    3. Dealing with break-ups 

    In the long list of what parents consider top priorities, teenage heartbreak may be pushed to the bottom of the pile. 

    We often find it somewhat amusing, but according to research, teenage heartbreak is not the wishy-washy puppy love gone wrong we presume it to be. 

    "Research shows that break-ups are the leading cause of psychological distress and a major cause of suicide among young people," says professor of psychology Lucia O'Sullivan, who views break-ups as a mental health concern. 

    According to the researcher, symptoms of heartbreak include insomnia, self-injury, use of drugs or alcohol, and unwanted intrusive thoughts. Likening the experience to drug withdrawal, Lucia points out that teenage heartbreak is every bit as serious and painful as those experienced by adults. 

    Giving even more gravity to the topic, Psychology Today writer Romeo Vitelli writes:

    "The attachment adults feel towards their romantic partners greatly resembles the attachment an infant feels for his/her mother. For example, people look to their romantic partners for security, comfort, and close physical contact." 

    A 2016 study conducted by Australian researchers found that increased stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms were common side-effects of the adolescent break-up, and that "romantic relationship concerns are one of the most common reasons young people seek counselling support."

    What parents can do

    Heartbreak specialist and licensed psychologist Guy Winch gives some pretty strong advice for all those who have gone through heartbreak. 

    In his hilarious and informative TED Talk How to Fix a Broken Heart, Guy divulges the secrets to getting over love: 

    1. Compiling a list of wrongs

    According to Guy, "the most common tendencies we have when our heart is broken is to idealise the person who broke it." 

    He says a good way of getting around this is to compile a list of all the ways the love interest was unsuitable, including bad qualities and pet peeves. 

    Recommend your teen compile this list and keep it on their phone. Encourage them to look at this list every time thoughts of their former love pop up. 

    2. Identify the voids left by love and fill them

    Guy says break-ups don't just mean a separation from a partner but also from an established social life and community. 

    Push your child to get busy, reminding them of the activities they enjoy and recommending possible options. 

    3. Patience and compassion

    Guy says patience and compassion are key to supporting a person who has gone through a break-up. "Compassion, because social support has been found to be important for their recovery... patience, because it's going to take them longer to move on than you think it should." 

    Here are some useful contacts for more information and assistance: 

    The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): www.sadag.org

    SADAG  Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567

    SADAG helpline: 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393

    Lifeline 24-hour helpline: 0861 322 322

    SA Federation for Mental Health, www.safmh.org.za or 011 781 1852

    TherapyRoute - www.therapyroute.com

    What are the issues that most worry you about the mental and emotional well-being of your teen?

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