Help Teens Prepare Emotionally for the New School Year
I had to hound my daughter to take a shower or simply change her clothes. I thought she was acting lazy. But when her therapist admitted her to the hospital for suicide risk, I learned that personal hygiene had been too much to ask. All of her energy went into facing the day.
There is no suicide season. It happens year round and for every child there are different stressors and back-to-school season can absolutely be a stressor. School’s social and academic expectations can exacerbate anxiety and leave a child feeling overwhelmed. It’s a good time for parents to check in.
What Should You Say?
Ideally parents are not coming out of the blue with questions like, “How was school today? Any thoughts of ending your own life?” That’s a bit jarring. The idea is to set a routine of checking in with the young person and giving them vocabulary around around their emotions along the way. It can be as simple as “How are you settling in with Freshman year?” Or maybe “Anything about middle school have you feeling a bit lost?” Open the conversation.
Parents shouldn’t wait until things are in crisis mode. Dr. John Ackerman, a clinical psychologist and suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research in Columbus, Ohio says parents should “build up equity and check in when things are good.” A teen needs to know where they can go for help. They may blow you off the first couple of times you ask by saying, “I’m fine, Mom, really.” Or maybe, “Dad, I just have a morbid sense of humor. I’m not suicidal.” But Dr. Ackerman says, “Having that comfort is key and it reduces a lot of burden and provides hope and support.”
What Should You Look For?
Mandy’s son was an angsty teen. He hid in his room and long sleeves no matter the weather. It wasn’t until later in therapy that Mandy learned his chosen wardrobe was to hide his self-inflicted cuts.
The first person to know that something is off is frequently a close friend of your child. Teens tend to confide in friends before parents, making it important for parents to note changes in behavior.
The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide says for parents to be on the lookout for “marked changes in behavior, including: withdrawal from friends or changes in social activities; anger or hostility; or changes in sleep.”
The identification can be tricky. Extreme, fluctuating emotions are things adults write off as “normal teenage behavior.” That’s true to an extent. Dr. Ackerman says that a teen’s brain is operating with a higher intensity of emotions and is coupled with the worst ability to regulate those emotions.
He says parents need to understand that, “teens may really believe it’s the worst thing in the world and will never get better.” Performance in school is often tied to overall success and that’s terrifying. Breakups can be devastating. Dr Ackerman encourages parents to “Take the perspective of the child and understand that this is their first ascent into this emotional valley.”
Not every emotional burp in a teen’s life is a suicide risk. It’s likely that a teen other than Mandy’s son would wear long sleeves for a completely different reason than self harm. And some stinky kids just need to take a shower after softball practice. But, these are opportunities for parents to check in. By doing so, parent’s not only help their teen, but they also help themselves remain aware. Symptoms differ from person to person and can easily be missed. That’s why open communication and paying attention to “the overall pattern” of a teen’s behavior is important. It’s all part of the the puzzle. When in doubt — seek help. Talking to a therapist never hurts.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or if you don’t like the phone, consider using the Lifeline Crisis Chat at www.crisischat.org.
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is an award-winning freelance writer who writes service journalism articles, personal essays, columns, and op-eds. Bonnie is the Communications Director for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She is also a board member of the Cincinnati Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.