Living with Children: 12-year-old son thinking about suicide
Question: On several occasions over the last six months or so, our 12-year-old son has told us he’s been thinking about suicide. Apparently, he’s been the target of a couple of school bullies and sometimes feels like life is too much. We’ve talked to him, tried to help him express his feelings, and tried to help him figure out how to solve these problems, but do you have other suggestions? Other than these three episodes, by the way, things in his life seem to be great. He has lots of friends, is liked by his teachers, and doesn’t act generally depressed.
Answer: I have one suggestion, but first, a fact: Over the past 50 years, child and teen suicide has increased, per capita, more than 10-fold, and that may well be an underestimate. Two questions ensue:
First, what’s going on? The short answer is that post-1960s parenting leaves many young people inadequately prepared to deal with the challenging realities of life. That objective requires that parents, by and large, expect children to solve problems of their own making, say “no” to at least 99% of a child’s requests for indulgence and entitlement, enroll children in more household chores than after-school activities, and insist, from a relatively early age, upon good emotional control. That’s merely the short list.
Beginning in the 1960s, people in my field told parents that children should be allowed to express their feelings freely lest they “bottle up” their emotions and develop all manner of psychological malfunctions. The result of this atrocious advice has been children who have no governor on their feelings. To all too many of today’s kids, every feeling is a valid state, worthy of expression and deserving of attention. For proof of this, one need only understand that social media has become, for many teens, a stage upon which they perform their personal soap operas.
The second question is, what should parents do? The best advice I can give along that line is “If and when your child begins talking about suicide, even in a veiled way, make statements as opposed to asking questions.” Asking questions is likely to lead parents down one emotional rabbit hole after another.
In a situation of this sort, questions have a way of validating the child’s feelings. Despite what many therapists will advise, that is NOT the proper approach. Much better to make statements, such as: “To be honest, suicide is an inappropriate response to a problem, no matter how big the problem seems at the moment, so let’s talk about real solutions rather than dwelling on your feelings,” “The problems you are dealing with are not unusual and they certainly aren’t forever, but suicide is most definitely forever,” and “Let’s talk about solving these problems, because if you commit suicide, they will not be solved. The kids who are picking on you will simply start on someone else because the problem is them, not you.” Even, “That’s not the intelligent response to a problem, ANY problem, and you are, in fact, an intelligent person. You can tough this out. Let’s talk about how.”
The child in question does not need to be engaged in a personal pity-party that lends authenticity to his/her out-of-control emotions; but rather led to think correctly. Another way of saying this: When a child lacks a governor on his/her thinking and emotions, the child’s parents need to step in and be the governor.
It’s become cliché, but it’s truth nonetheless: The most powerful love is tough love.