Help for Parents of Suicidal and Self-Harming Teens
First, I want to say thank you for coming to this page. It shows you care enough about your son or daughter to try to learn some new things. I also want to say I admire you because this is hard for most of us to be willing to do.
Second, I'd like to tell you a little about myself. I am not a "psychologist" or a "psychiatrist." What I know about teen suicide comes from mainly three places.
Though I am not a teen, I have found that we share many thoughts and feelings in common. I am not a parent, so my perspective will be different than yours. I take more of the teen's perspective.
I'd also like to tell you what my relationship was/is like with own parents. My father died before I ever started doing any of this kind of work. He died before it ever crossed my mind to talk about my feelings or his feelings with him. He was an intelligent, sensitive man. He worked for General Electric all his life. He was an electrical engineer. You can say he truly sacrificed for me and my brothers and sisters. He was not a happy man. Towards the end of his career at GE they were treating him very badly. He was old. New engineers coming out of the university knew more than he did about modern electronics. And the company could pay them less. They even tried to fire him and a lot of his long-time workmates. But they got together and filed an age-discrimination lawsuit and were given token clerical jobs until they retired. He was always afraid we would run out of money. He used to watch every penny. His own father had died when he was around 13 years old and the bank literally kicked him, his sisters and my grandmother out of their house. (I've been crying as I've been writing this, by the way.)
He died of a heart attack when he was 68. I never got a chance to really have one good talk with him before he died. And I never really got a chance to say "Thanks, Dad." I never once cried in his arms and shared my deep inner pain with him. As for my mother, she is still alive. She is in her 80's now. We don't speak often. I feel sad about this but I learned that my mother was not able to be the emotionally nurturing woman who I needed in my life. She had her own unmet emotional needs and her own problems. When I started paying attention to my feelings, and how she treated me (when I was about 35) I realized I often felt judged, lectured to, and disapproved of.
I am just starting this section of my site on teen suicide - before this I did not have a special section for parents. So this will be a bit brief for now. But I believe it will be helpful if you keep an open mind. I want to say in advance that my writing often makes parents feel defensive. I apologize for this. I have felt very frustrated with a lot of parents. Many of them don't want to listen to what I have to say. They deny it and often attack me and say I have no credentials etc. I can understand this so I am trying to take a bit of the parents' perspective in this section.
I can't know what it is like to be in your position. I can only imagine. And even as I start to imagine it, tears come to my eyes. If I saw someone that I cared about, who I honestly believe I had done my best job with raising for 14 or 16 or 18 years... well, I would probably feel terribly guilty. I would probably blame myself. I probably would get defensive if someone accused me of being a bad parent. Or if someone even implied it, or if they even suggested the thought that the reason my son or daughter was suicidal is because I had failed in some way.
I probably would not want to hear this. And I would probably defend myself and come up with a long list of reasons why I had not contributed to the problem and why the problem was entirely the fault of my teen or their peers, or the media or some genetic malfunction. Or I might just say "You don't have any idea what you are talking about. You don't know me or my son or daughter. So mind your own business."
Hopefully, you are feeling less defensive than that and more open to learning what you can. But I would like to know how you actually are feeling and what you really are thinking at this point.
I want to better understand the parent's perspective, better understand how they feel at a time like this. And how they feel about what I've said so far. So I ask you to please help me by taking a moment right now to write me with your honest feelings and your honest thoughts. Besides helping me, I believe this will help you by giving you a bit of a chance to "vent", which should then help you come back and focus more on learning things which will help your teen. So again, please take a moment now and write me.
I cannot promise you that I will reply. I get a lot of mail. But I can promise you that I will read your mail. In the future I might try to start something like a forum for parents of suicidal teens. Please let me know if you would like to be included on a mailing list if I start something like this or if you would like me to pass your email along to other parents of suicidal teens. But for now I will just read your mail and keep it to myself. I will never identify you or give out your email without your permission. The important thing is for you to write down all your thoughts and feelings.
When you write your feelings try to use "feeling words". Here are a few to help you get started. I would appreciate it if you help me create a longer list to help other parents. On another page of my site I have a longer list of feeling words. The link is at the end of this section.
Other EQI.org Topics:
Examples of Feeling Words
guilty -- responsible -- sad -- blamed -- afraid -- confused -- understood / misunderstood -- appreciated / unappreciated
resented -- hated -- loved / unloved -- respected / disrespected -- obeyed / defied
Next, I ask you to give my email address to your teen. Ask them to write to me directly. I always reply to teens, even if it takes me a few days. If I don't have time to reply I will have one of my teen volunteers reply. I am setting up a network of online volunteer teen counselors who will probably be able to relate to your teen better than you or I can. I've found the most important thing is for the teen to have at least one person they can share all their thoughts and feelings with. You probably want that person to be you, but for right now I suggest that your teen talk to me or to other teens. When your teen writes me I will tell him or her that I am working with you but that I won't share anything with you that he or she asks me not to. This might be hard for you to accept, and I understand if you don't want to agree to this - it's up to you. This is just how I believe I can best help your teen.
Okay, if you have made it this far then we are making important progress.
As I said, this is going to be brief for now, but there is one thing which I especially want you to learn about. It is what I call "invalidation." My writing on invalidation has been number in the world, according to google for a long time. You can do a search on "invalidation" and check this out. So what this tells me is that people think it is worth reading.
Basically, invalidation is telling someone they shouldn't feel the way they feel. Abraham Maslow said this was a little like telling rocks they shouldn't be hard, water it shouldn't be wet, and grass it shouldn't be green.
I have found one thing all suicidal teens I have known have in common is they have felt emotionally invalidated. As you look at the way we invalidate each other, you will see many common examples. This shows how universal psychogical invalidation is. It is normal, but it is not emotionally healthy. Sensitve teens are affected by it much more than adults. You will find the link below, but please keep reading for now.
What I, and many psychologists, believe is that our emotions have a purpose. Below is also a link to go a section of my site on the purpose of our emotions and feelings, if you'd like to take a look. There is a lot of other practical information about emotions and emotional management on that page.
By the way, in my experience, the teens that feel suicidal are often quite intelligent, or at least are above average in intelligence. So they are not suffering from a lack of intellect. The problem is an emotional one. So reading about emotions will help you understand the problem and possible remedies. Our society in general downplays the importance of emotions, but the suicidal teens I have known are quite emotionally sensitive, and to help them we must accept this and work with it instead of against it.
Okay that is it for now. Here are the links to other pages in my site which I believe will help you.
Some final advice. Look at the list in the link below and try to imagine what your teen might be feeling. You might even try printing it out and asking him or her to circle the feelings that apply (without you standing over their shoulder!). Then you could suggest that if they write me, they let me know which feelings they circled. That is usually a good starting place when I talk to teens.
Here is that list of what I call Common Negative Feelings
Typically, when I feel suicidal I feel alone, discouraged, misunderstood, judged. My thoughts work against me. I say things like "It is no use. I will never meet anyone. I will die alone." I also say things like "I can't take this." "No one understands me."
When I feel suicidal what I long for is someone who will just let me talk or if I don't feel like talking, who will just stay there with me. I don't want someone to talk to me when I feel suicidal. My own mother used to give me too many lectures and now almost everything someone says to me when I am too depressed to talk back sounds like a lecture. My mom thought that she could talk me out of my feelings, but she couldn't. To be honest, usually her talking was to try to make herself feel better. I've made the same mistake sometimes when I talk to suicidal teens. But I try to remind myself that if I am talking, they're not. And that's not good.