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1/7/18blog post

youth need help navigating emotional stress

Our most important job as parents is to keep our children safe. Since 2007, that job has been more difficult as kids are increasingly trying to die by suicide.

The changes in suicide rates among youth are difficult to understand. In the mid-80s and 90s, the overall rates of self-harm among kids were incredibly high, with 8.7 percent of our high school students reporting that they had attempted suicide. There was a significant downward trend, but since 2007 the rates have dramatically increased.

I have no explanation for these changes.  Some experts have focused on the impact of social media, economic uncertainty and parenting styles. Regardless of the actual causes, here is what you can do today to help keep your children safe from themselves.

Beginning at an early age, allow your kids to experience emotional discomfort. Help them understand that “failure is a bruise, not a tattoo” in the words of poet John Sinclair.  Don’t rush in to soothe their psyche when they feel frustrated, angry and despondent. Your well-intentioned efforts are hurting them, as they are not developing any tolerance for uncomfortable feelings.

I tell kids that unpleasant feelings are normal and are an expected part of life. Dealing with these emotions is as much a skill as riding a bike or learning how to read. What if you focused as much attention on your child’s mental health as you do on their physical well-being or academic achievement?

Many teens have told me that they attempted suicide because of a breakup with a romantic partner or were restricted from using their iPhone.  This may seem ridiculous to us as adults, but it reflects the honest experiences of these kids.  Please don’t ridicule these perceptions, just try to understand them.

There are two important things to remember about kids’ realities. First, they feel emotional pain incredibly intensely. Second, they think their pain is permanent. Thus, death by suicide is the only way to escape their anticipated everlasting agony.

Think of your job as parents to be more of a teacher than a rescuer. When kids have a problem, help them think about different ways they can manage the situation. Set expectations that if one approach doesn’t work, they should then attempt other options.

When disappointments or distress overwhelm your child, help them discover effective ways to manage those emotions---listening to music, doing something active, or getting some extra sleep.

Finally, remember that there is only one factor that is most responsible for people of all ages surviving tough times. Kids who have genuine and warm relationships with parents, peers and others are most likely to navigate life’s tough times successfully.