How Parents can Address Youth Mental Health and Suicide: What to Focus on in Childhood and Adolescence

I think we can safely say that child mental health struggle and suicide are high up on the list of every parent’s worst nightmare. And in today’s world, this particular form of tragedy seems to loom scarily on the horizon with more and more urgency.

Luckily there are an increasing number of resources available.

But how are parents to know which resources to choose? How can they be sure they are covering all the bases?

The best way to answer this question is by developing a clear and deep understanding of where youth mental health issues originate from, and what REALLY causes youth suicide.

It starts with an understanding that there is not one category of people who have “mental health issues” and one category who don’t. We are all on a spectrum of healthy and unhealthy thoughts and behaviours.

In fact, most of us have a great deal of ‘unhealthy’ patterns. As a society, we are incredibly cut off from our feelings, because we simply don’t have time to relate to them. Everyone is distracted, doing a million things, with very little time or space to themselves. Youth today see their role models dealing with the incredible pressures they are under by suppressing their emotions – with the latest app to distract them, with a glass of wine to soothe their nerves, and with coffee to keep them going when they want to slow down, because that is all any of us can do to survive.

As a society, we are raising our children to believe that emotions are an irritation that should be removed from the equation of life to the best of their ability.  

But there is one giant problem with this. Children FEEL things. When they’re hurt, they cry. When they’re lonely, they reach out. But we are teaching them to bury these natural responses. If we are constantly shutting down our own feelings, it is confronting and overwhelming to be faced with the giant emotional reactions of a child. So naturally, we try to “fix it” for them. We want to make their feelings go away so that they can go back to being “normal” and “happy” and we can get back to our insanely long to-do list.

So what happens when children reach adolescence and are flooded with new and overwhelming emotions? They panic. They have operated their whole lives on the belief that they should be able to control their feelings, and all of a sudden this is no longer an option.

Their emotions are terrifying and they believe they simply cannot cope, which leads to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

It is actually WAY more common than we think for youth to have suicidal thoughts. It is in fact a very “logical” reaction to our societal conundrum – if emotions are the enemy, and we are in an emotion that we cannot get out of (especially if our emotion is the result of trauma and therefore incredibly overwhelming and intense) our mind will simply FIND A WAY OUT no matter the cost.

So the goal is not to prevent kids from ever having negative or scary thoughts – all that goal does is make them feel MORE hopeless when they inevitably do have these thoughts. The goal is to help them learn that this darkness, this survival instinct brain pattern that desperately wants to make their feelings go away, is only ONE PART of their consciousness.

We want to teach kids that no matter what their situation is, no matter how big and overwhelming their feelings are, they have the power to shift how they are SEEING things, and this can turn any obstacle into a pathway for growth and change.

The great news is that as a parent you have the power to change things for your child, and in doing so, instigate a much needed cultural transformation.  

Kids brains are malleable and they are fast learners. If we start coaching them from a young age to have a different relationship with their feelings, this whole terrifying epidemic of “youth mental health issues” will become so much more clear, straightforward, and manageable.

Here is what you can do:

In the early years, focus on learning about emotional awareness so that you can pass this knowledge on in your interactions with your child.

Kids are incredibly receptive to this kind of learning. All it takes is an adult explaining to them in simple terms: “When we feel sad, our thoughts become negative, and we want to do something like yell, pout or hide, but if we stop and feel those feelings, we can choose to take care of them instead of reacting, and then we can learn something wonderful from our sadness, because it shows us what we care about”.  

There are countless ways to teach this to kids – through games, art, and body awareness exercises. As a parent if you are up-skilled in this area, you can easily and creatively pass this wisdom onto your children.

However, adolescence is a different story.

There comes an age where teenagers simply stop listening to adults. Part of healthy brain development is a separation from parents, and the adolescent focus becomes trying to “fit in” with their peers. This leads them to believe that anything hard they are going through makes them “different” and opens them up to peer rejection.

So with teenagers, we can’t just use “our advice” any more. We need to get into the channels where teens are receiving their information – social media/online, their friends, the ‘popular’ kids. We need to give them role models of PEOPLE LIKE THEM who are showing them a pathway THROUGH what they are feeling.

They need to know how normal it is to have suicidal thoughts when they are feeling down, to feel terrified in an exam, or to feel lost and lonely when their parents separate or fight. And they will only hear this when it is coming from someone they WANT to listen to, in a medium that they RESPECT (in most cases, film/social media/online).

If we can focus on exposing teenagers to realistic peer role models who have been through mental health struggles and come out the other side, we are capitalising on the strongest motivator in adolescent social learning.

Through this approach, teens will learn the skills they need to relate to their feelings in a healthy way, because the advice is coming from a source that they value – which in adolescence means EVERYTHING.   

As a parent if you take these approaches in childhood and adolescence, you will be creating an environment of emotional awareness, and providing a pathway for your child to reach out for help whenever they need it – which is all kids really need to create a mentally healthy life for themselves that you can be confident is truly sustainable in the long-term.

Looking for more resources?

Mental health videos for parents, teachers, and teens can be found my Youtube Channel.

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