In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death in children aged 5 to 17 years in Australia (Source). This is a significant increase since 2006. It can be quite scary for a parent to know this and not know what to do. While a lot of people will be quick to blame social media, my clinical experience tells me it’s a variety of factors including genetics, stressful lifestyles, a disconnected society, poor emotional regulation skills and yes, social media among others.
As a parent, what can you do?
Being mentally well
We all have days when we feel sad, withdraw or worry. It’s normal and a part of life. The biggest difference between being sad for a few days and being depressed is seen in a child’s functioning. Being mentally well usually means a child is engaging in daily activities such as attending school or extra-curricular activities as well as their social commitments.
Signs of being mentally unwell
It is important to be able to understand some of the signs of deteriorating mental health in children and adolescents.
- Low mood that lasts consistently for two weeks or more
- Increased irritability or anger
- Increased anxiety or fear
- More withdrawn
- Changes in appetite: This can involve eating significantly more or significantly less than usual
- Changes in sleep: Sleep patterns can be completely reversed or a child or teen might sleep a lot less or a lot more than usual.
- Loss of interest in activities: This is more than just school and needs to involve things they used to enjoy
- Deterioration in personal care/hygiene
- Poor concentration
- Easily tired
- Avoidance of social situations, feared situations, by using drugs or alcohol
- Self-harming behaviours
- Thoughts of death or dying: While we all have thoughts of death or dying at some point, it is helpful to have a conversation if you child or teenager discloses such thoughts.
Having a conversation
- Ask your child or teenager if things are okay. It might seem like the most obvious conversation starter but hopefully, it’ll be enough. Ask if there is anything you can do for them.
- If they don’t respond, or if they say they are okay when they are obviously not, reflect back to them what you’ve noticed over the weeks.
- Listen actively to what they have to say and empathise. This involves reflecting back what they are saying. Make sure you have enough time to have this conversation and give them your full attention.
- Validate their feelings. This is one of the most important things you can do for your child at any stage. Children need to have feelings validated to know what they feel and that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. Validating feelings is not the same as agreeing with it. An example of validating their feelings is ‘I can see you are angry at being grounded because you think it’s unfair.’
- Don’t jump in to fix anything. You don’t have to always solve problems and sometimes, listening and validating might be enough for them to open up further.
- Try not to problem-solve as your first step.
- Don’t give them platitudes like ‘everything will be fine’ or ‘don’t worry’ because you can’t guarantee things will be fine and it’s okay to worry.
- Don’t yell at them for feeling the way they feel or tell them to ‘get over it’.
If they are suicidal
If your child or teen tells you they want to die, here are some things you can do:
- Stay calm
- Ask them if they have been thinking how they want to die
- If they don’t have a plan and tell you it’s more about ending the pain, go back to having a conversation as mentioned earlier to help them through the pain.
- If they do have a plan, get rid of the means, monitor them but also check what will stop them from going ahead with it. Once again, don’t get angry with them but listen and validate.
- In either case, take them to the GP the very next day to get a referral to see a psychologist.
- Finally, if you are still concerned about risk, take your child or teen to the local emergency department where they can be assessed by a professional.
We can all do our best to create a safe and supportive environment for our children and adolescents. If they feel connected and listened to in the family, they are more likely to open up when troubled.
Stay tuned to our blog for more posts on talking to kids and teens as well as other child and adolescent mental health resources. Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date!