It is hard for parents going through this process. Our children have been followers and are now taking the lead. We like when our kids do what we want, when we want and how we want. I am not saying this as way of excusing inappropriate teen behaviour. However, we would handle many altercations differently if we remember that this behavior, for the most part, is simply part of the growing up process.
When parents are asked what their biggest fear is in regards to a teen’s unhappiness, it is usually that their child will engage in self-harmful behaviors. Their fear of self-harm or even suicide is often based on the media, but also on statistical realities. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicide, of people aged 15 to 24. Even more disturbing is the fact that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14.
Some serious signs we need to watch out for include:
* Talks about death and/or suicide (maybe even in a joking manner).
* Actual plans ways to kill him or herself.
* Expresses worries that nobody cares about him or her.
* Has attempted suicide in the past.
* Dramatic changes in personality and behavior.
* Withdraws from interacting with friends and family.
* Shows signs of depression.
* Shows signs of a substance abuse problem.
* Begins to act recklessly and engage in risk-taking behaviors. Begins to give away sentimental possessions.
* Spends time online interacting with people who glamorize suicide and maybe even form suicide pacts.
Of course, suicidal ideations are serious and should never be minimized. However, we must realize that death in the eyes of a child or teen is different than the way an adult sees it. Also, when a child talks about death, we must understand the context of the discussion. Are they reacting to the death of a close family member or a popular star? A child who just lost a close family member might talk about death and want to die because they feel badly for the person no longer with them and want that person not to be “alone.” They might feel guilty and even wonder why not them or even if they are in some way responsible. I recently spoke with the mother of a seven-year-old who lost his father to a terrible illness. The child talks about wanting to die to be with his father, so that his father won’t be alone in the ground. It is important for a child to have an outlet for these feelings and a parent should ever fear having a conversation about death or dying. In addition, many child therapists and members of the clergy are prepared to assist parents with this difficult topic.
We all deal with stress and distress differently. For some, behavior changes might be directly related to the stress triggers and may not be something we understand. There are times when the child seems to be coping well and then something changes rapidly. To add complexity to the situation, sometimes it’s difficult to understand what is “normal” for the age of the child or teen. In other words, is this behavior or mood swing typical for a child this age, in this environment and with his or her family history?
Childhood and teen distress usually appears as depression. Kids tend to talk about feelings of hopelessness and anxiety, along with feelings of being trapped in a life that she or he can’t handle – added to that, it is often difficult for a child or teen to talk with someone about feeling out of control.
In Part II we will explore knowing when to seek help and what to expect. We will also take a look at long term pain and pain handed down from parent to child.