I write a fortnightly column for the Great Eastern Mail. Missed an edition? Here I share past letters for you.
Dear Emma, I’m really struggling. The school called and told me that my teenager has disclosed that they sometimes have suicidal thoughts. My teenager won’t want to talk to me about it, but how can I help support them still? I don’t want to lose my child.
Hi there, thank you for writing in about such a sensitive topic. I can hear the love and support in your letter. It can be a hard and brave thing to ask for support, just like it can for your teenager. Firstly, it’s important to know that intrusive thoughts are normal. Everybody experiences them to some extent. Intrusive thoughts are things like “What would happen if I just kept driving and didn’t turn the corner?” Or “What if I take the whole bottle of pills and never wake up?”
There are many myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of the most distressing myths believed is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is simply not true. Unwanted intrusive thoughts become habits when engaged with too often. Engaging with them means thinking of them too often, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away or ignoring them. Instead, through acceptance we can learn to leave the thoughts alone, treat them as if they are not even interesting, and by doing so they, they will loose their powerful hold over time.
Help your teenager learn how to overcome these thoughts by:
- Learn to recognise and label these thoughts as “intrusive thoughts.”
- Remind them that these thoughts are automatic and not up to their choice.
- Allow the thoughts and feelings to simply be there, without passing judgement.
- Practice allowing time to pass. Remember that less is more. Pause. Give your teenager time. There is no urgency.
- Expect the thoughts to come back again.
- Continue whatever you both were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.
Try to avoid building on the intrusive thoughts in the following ways
- Avoid engaging with the thoughts in any way.
- Avoid pushing the thoughts out of your mind.
- Avoid trying figure out what your thoughts “mean.”
- Avoid checking to see if the above steps are “working” to get rid of the thoughts.
Acceptance is tricky but with practice can really help to overcome the intrusive thoughts. Accceptance refers to allowing a thought to be present but not engaging with it or identifying with it. It’s almost saying to the thought; “You are allowed to be here but I don’t have to buy in to you. Stay but in the corner over there.” Helping your teenager to understand the normalcy around these intrusive thoughts will help alleviate some sense of shame they are experiencing. That is always a great place to start.
Secondly, most people who have the experience of considering suicide, do so due to an overwhelming sense of feeling awful and hopelessness. They’re sad, they’re worried, possibly embarrassed, they’re fearful, and they don’t see any good way out of it. In these cases, it helps to remind them of something that matters to them. A pet, a purpose, a dream, a friend, a family member or even a favourite tv show can all make the difference in shifting the perspective.
Sometimes though, a supportive parent and great friends are simply not enough. Your teenager may need professional help, and soon as you can. A qualified therapist, and possibly some antidepressant medication, are wonderful tools that will help your teenager through this. But be warned – they may not appreciate your advice and be resistant to the saying yes to getting this help. Remember, suicide is what seems to them to be the only solution they can think of to their problems; and you’re trying to take that away from them. Shame is a powerful emotion that can overshadow reasoning, so avoid blame or frustration and remind them that they matter to you. That this too will pass.
And finally, my third and least intrusive way of supporting them would be to offer time together. Go for walks,shopping, fishing or other activities where you can have time to talk together. And if talking is hard, watch movies together. I recommend holding a vintage movie night and choosing one the following movies with similar themes to the one you’ve written in with. One you’ve probably heard of, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Yes, its commonly known as a Christmas film, but remember that the story is of a man who feels he’s such a failure that he wants to end it all, but a guardian angel comes to show him what his world would be like without him in it, giving him a sense of his own meaning and worth.
A modern alternative would be the Netflix series “Surviving Summer” which also addresses how changing your perspective can change how you feel about life. It follows the life a troubled teen, who despite her determination to not like where she is, ends up in different mindset than when she arrived.
These movies don’t offer judgment or blame on the lead characters, instead they offer the message that if you look at life in a different way, meaning and purpose can be found there. Use these movies as springboard for discussion into helping your teenager find more meaning and purpose in their life. Try not to provide answers but instead provide a safe space for teenager to find their answer using their own voice.
In this way you will offer support and create some quality time together. I hope this helps and that you are able to implement some of the ideas here to make a difference in the life of your loved one.
All the best, Emma