It's the second leading cause of death among young people, but what you do as a parent can help!
The other day my 15-year-old daughter confided to me that one of her friends was talking about committing suicide. On the same day, a different girl at our local high school was hospitalized for suicide-attempt-related injuries. Did this girl give indications prior to her suicide attempt that she was in need of help? I don’t know the victim personally, but research indicates that the answer is most likely yes. According to the Jason Foundation, four out of five teens who attempt suicide exhibit clear warning signs beforehand.
Rates of teen suicide and its twin, teen depression, have gone up dramatically in recent years, increasing by a whopping 56% in the decade between 2007 and 2017. That gives suicide the dubious distinction of being the second leading cause of death among teenagers. The statistics are heartbreaking and at the same time all too familiar.
What can we do, as parents, if we suspect that our teen, or another young person that we know of, is struggling with depression or hopelessness? In addition to talking to our family doctor, and possibly seeking other professional help, let these four suggestions guide you …
1Listen patiently, and respond non-judgmentally.
As parents, we need to make time for our teens. Time to ask about their day, about school and friends, their thoughts and interests. Time for regular face-to-face conversation. We are all busy and it is easy to go through the day, between work, school and activities, with very little quality interaction. It is easy for teens to feel like they are no longer important to us, like they are barely on the radar of our busy lives. Take time to ask about how they are doing, and time to actually stop, be present to them and patiently wait and listen for a response. Try to respond in a caring manner without coming across as critical or judgmental. If your teen doesn’t want to talk, don’t give up. Let him or her know they are loved (teens need hugs too!) and try again later. Be persistent. In one 2016 study of a large group of teenagers, it was a high level of parental support — not peer support — that provided the best defense against depressive symptoms. As parents we can tend to underestimate the influence we have on our teens, but study after study has demonstrated how vital the parent-teen relationship is.
2Strengthen your own relationship with your teen.
For us as parents to be able to influence our teens for the better, our own relationship with them must be strong. This takes time, energy, love and persistence on our part. A strong relationship is fostered when parents and teens participate in activities together, communicate often, and express affection for one another. One of the easiest ways to strengthen a relationship with our teen is by doing something fun together. If it has been a long time since you’ve laughed and relaxed with your teen, maybe it’s time to have some fun. Do something they enjoy, with them. One summer, when I was a teenager, my mother took me to see an old (black-and-white) movie series that was playing weekly at a local Arts Center. After the movie each week we went out for dessert before heading home. Years later, I still remember those evening “dates” as some of the sweetest memories of my teen years.
3Encourage positive friendships.
It’s no secret that teens look to their peers for acceptance and approval. But when these relationships are tense and volatile, they may lead to depression. Parents can help by getting to know their teen’s friends (and the friend’s parents), and encouraging wholesome, positive friendships. We can also talk with our teens about their friendships, helping them to weather the inevitable ups and downs, and point out potential problems.
4Encourage the development of faith.
Bring them to church. Talk about your own faith journey and let them see your faith life as it is lived out day by day. Encourage questions. Pray together. Let them know you are praying for him or her specifically. Many teens who fall into depression also feel empty and without purpose in life. Encouraging them to look beyond themselves and use their unique gifts to give to others through volunteer work or some other service, can help balance perspective. Encourage involvement in faith-based youth activities with like-minded peers.
The teen years can be challenging for teens and parents alike. Any teen can have mood swings or volatile behavior. Strong family relationships and healthy habits can go a long way towards helping weather the storms. But sometimes professional intervention is needed. If your teen has significant changes in mood, personality or behavior that last more than a few weeks, it may be a good idea to seek professional help to determine the reason for the changes.