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The Internet has given
teens a new, safe place to express their thoughts and
feelings. It has helped them feel less alone by making
connections with others in similar life situations. Many
of them find it much easier to write and chat about their
lives online than to talk to someone in person or even
anonymously on the phone. For those who won't talk to
anyone else, for whatever reasons, the Internet has
proven to be a life-line.
One of the things which has proved to be the most helpful is our online teen chat support group. This is a place where depressed, suicidal and self-harming teens can talk to each other, feel less alone and not have to worry about being reported to the authorities. It is here they can finally be honest and finally find people who can understand them. This is a private chat room, open only to those teens who write to us specifically and request to join. We believe it is helping save lives, and the teens report this to be true.
From our work with
teens we have seen that there is a direct and very strong
connection between repeated abuse and suicidal feelings.
While physical and/or sexual abuse by the parents and
guardians has been present our observations support the
research which shows that emotional abuse does the most
lasting damage. Often, there has been physical abuse up
to around age 10-12. By then the fear of the parents is
well established. After that, the abuse is primarily
emotional. In every case, the teen has suffered from
disrespect, lack of emotional need fulfillment and
emotional invalidation at home.
Abuse and Social Services
As we have seen it, a major problem is that many of the abused teens are "only" being abused emotionally now, so social service workers do not put a high priority on such cases. They are simply too overworked. Another problem is that often they are not even aware of suicidal teens before it is too late. Even when they are aware they can do very little to fill the teens' unmet emotional needs or to stop their emotional pain. Psychiatrists often try to put the teen on medication. But medication does not fill their emotional needs, nor does it make their parents better fathers or mothers.
As EQI.org founder S. Hein says,
"Putting Megan on medication does not make Mom a better mother."
This is so obvious,
yet it needs to be said again and again until systems and
beliefs are changed to reflect reality. (See note below about the Megan
A social services
worker in one country reported that they never prosecute
emotional abuse cases since they are so overworked with
physical and sexual abuse cases. Emotional abuse is also
harder to see than other forms of abuse, perhaps
especially for those who have experienced it. Author
Nicky Cruz, who was a gang leader in New York City, makes
this point when he says that when was growing up he was
"too young to realize that the wounds inflicted by
withholding love penetrated far deeper even than
irresponsible punishment..." (citation)
Megan Meier Suicide - Several years after the original edition of this article, a teen in the USA named Megan Meier killed herself seconds after her mother failed to provide her the emotional support she desperately needed. See video of the mother's confession.
See also our page on emotionally abusive mothers
The teens we talk to do not want to report the abuse that is occurring in their homes. That is one reason they talk to us at EQI.org. The main reason they don't want to report it is because they have learned it is dangerous to tell the truth to anyone in their own cities, towns and villages. They have learned not to trust adults. We have seen that one of the most damaging forms of abuse is convincing a child or teen that it is dangerous to tell the truth. This is what has happened to virtually every teen we have worked with.
The teens have also
been made to feel guilty for hurting their parents,
breaking up families, etc. One 15 year old told us it was
her fault for breaking up the family when she reported
that her step-father was abusing her. She told us she
could have just put up with it till she was 16 when she
could move out.
It is difficult for
anyone to admit that they have been abused. It is
especially difficult when the abusers are your own
parents. Teens know that they will be talked about; that
everyone at school will find out. This is extremely hard
on them. They all yearn to be "normal." They
know they will be treated differently by their peers.
They also know there will be investigations and lots of
questions and it will be extremely uncomfortable at home.
They are afraid of punishment and retaliation if they
report their own parents. When I urge teens to report
what is happening they say things like, "It is so
easy for you to tell us to report it. You just don't
understand how hard it is for us." or "My
father/mother/step-father would kill me if I did."
As said above, suicidal teens have learned that it is dangerous to tell the truth. They have learned they will be attacked, invalidated, disbelieved and punished for telling the truth. A common theme in dysfunctional families is that the parents are in near complete denial. They don't want to hear that there are any problems. They don't want to hear any negative emotions from the teens. So they make the teen feel worse for telling the truth and the teen quickly learns to either lie or just keep his or her mouth shut. And if the teen does talk, and social services gets involved, the teen will probably be blamed by one of the parents for trying to break up the family.
From our observations and over ten years of experience in direct communication with teens we have developed this list of characteristics of depressed, suicidal and self-harming teens:
Note: We put the emphasis on the parents failing to meet their emotional needs. We realize they also need acceptance from their peers, teachers etc. We believe, though, that parents can offer protection from this rejection.
Initially this was just a theory, but then we met a young adult who provided support for this belief. She reported that she was always rejected by her classmates because she was so different. For one thing her parents moved from one country to another frequently so she did not share the same language and culture and dress.
But she always knew that when she
got home she could talk about things. At home she felt
safe. This person is now one of the most self-confident,
open-minded and content people you could find.
See also this list of Common characteristics in the home environments of suicidal teens
|Suicidal Feelings and Unmet
One of our beliefs is that when anyone is feeling depressed, self-destructive and suicidal they have a wide variety of unmet emotional needs.
We have polled depressed
adolescents to see if we could find support for this
belief. The data does in fact strongly suggest the
hypothesis. For example, we ask teens how much of the top
ten emotional needs they feel. Their answers show without
any doubt that their emotional needs are not being met.
A teen might answer, for example:
Here is a more complete example.
Around the world, self-injury such as cutting and suicide is on the rise. Because of what I learned online, I have also made it a point to talk to people about suicide whenever I can. I have been surprised how many people have once felt suicidal. It is far more than I would have guessed before I started asking.
This suggests to me that there are problems with society itself rather than just with individual families. In particular, I believe we are failing to meet the emotional needs of these adolescents. The young adults I have talked to all have had enough to eat and a place to sleep. Their families are well-off enough to have computers in their homes, yet still, the teens are depressed and suicidal. Some families are extremely wealthy, in fact. Yet something is missing.
The more I talk to these emotionally sensitive people, the more I believe in my theories about the unmet emotional needs in society and the more I believe in the importance of emotionally competent parents. I believe, by the way that much of what I would call emotional competency can be learned. It is much different than a person's innate level of emotional intelligence for reasons I discuss elsewhere. (See for example the history and definition of EI)
The problem, I believe is that the basic emotional needs of these teens are not being met. Another problem seems to be what scientists are now calling "Alexithymia." This basically means a person is unable to express their emotions with words. We don't teach students in school how to identify and label their feelings. In some schools this is changing with in programs that are often called "SEL" programs - Social and Emotional Learning. But these are very recent programs and not many schools even address the issue of feelings. Few schools in the entire world are teaching about emotional invalidation, for example, one thing which is present in all suicidal cases I have ever worked with. Schools simply are not prepared to deal with these kinds of things. And because of that, teens are dying around the world. Schools could be a place where a teen gets help, but often a suicidal teen feels even worse after a day at school. They are told to cheer up, smile, stop being so self-centered, stop looking so sad, be more outgoing, join more clubs, get involved in more activities, try out for cheerleading.
They are given all kinds of unhelpful advice. But they are rarely listened to.
Society as a whole does not place much value on emotions. Hopefully, with the interest in emotional intelligence and related research, this situation will begin to change in a healthier direction.
|Nicky Cruz Citation - Lonely but never alone, p. 31|
Teens who cut don't feel good about themselves.
They have a very low self-image.
They don't like themselves or sometimes they hate themselves.
|Incest Victim Who Wasn't
Believed by Her Mother
This letter is from an adult who was suicidal in her teens: