Apr 20, 2011

Helping our kids when clouds are gathering...

The following post was written in response to a gifted e-list following an Australian TV show about a family whose teenage daughter had suicided...This show had a huge effect on parents worried about how to deal with even the tiny precursors to self-harming behaviour - for example a child of 12 saying “I want to die”. I wrote this post to help other parents with general tactics and ideas to help in the early stages of depression and anxiety, when fears about suicide arise. It is not advice designed for individual situations - see a qualified therapist or doctor if you need specific help for your own situation.
(FYI - I am not practicing at this time.)

As a counsellor with many years of experience with suicidal and self harming clients (both anonymously on the phone at Lifeline and with private practice clients) I wanted to share a few thoughts. Apologies for the heavy tone in places!

"I want to die" is often the way of saying "I want the pain to stop"... try, if you can, to respond as though you heard the second statement rather than get caught up in the horror of the first statement. Don't be afraid to reflect the feelings of your child - "I can hear when you say that, that you are feeling really overwhelmed about..."

Make an available space in your lives for this big stuff to be talked about - washing up, hanging the washing out, cooking together etc where busy hands help loosen tongues rather than "I want to talk to you..." formality.

Cultivate a family framework that is is ok for Everyone to talk about the bad stuff; yes, even perfectionist mums and dads!

If at all concerned, don't hesitate to reach out to counsellors at school, a phone crisis service like Lifeline, recommended therapists, even if only for you to have a sounding board.

Aim to build a realistic notion in your family of "Life" . There are good days, and bad days, and just average days.

Resilience is the number 1 survival tool for kids (indeed, everyone).  Accentuate the positive, but also when you are through the negative - "whew - we got through that!".

Life is hard sometimes, but also wonderful, boring, funny, silly, fulfilling. This also applies to us and our behaviours - that our choices can be good, bad, silly, but just like a new day, there will always be another choice to make.

Being "good enough" is to be real, and flexible, and forgiving of self and others.

A thought about depression: some believe that it is "old, frozen anger". In my experience, this is quite a helpful way to look at it, as working on ways to express the anger/frustration usually attendant in depression can really move it along.

I have observed lots of clients who believe they are not entitled/allowed to be annoyed, or heard or ungrateful - and often this dynamic started in childhood (yes, just like the cliches!).

Being truly honest with how you feel, even if that is only with yourself in a journal, is freeing. I have worked with many adult clients on "safe" means of expressing angry feelings (purposefully smashing old crockery alone, kicking cardboard boxes, writing down angry thoughts then burning and "releasing" them etc). So teaching ways of self expression to our kids is paramount - art, music, writing down how they are feeling... a great tool that most adults could use too.

Try to own your own feelings, and let your kids own theirs too.

Daily enjoyable forms of exercise is a great way of moving back into balance from depression.

I also saw [that TV show] - what a brave family and a tragic unusual death. From my very superficial observation there appeared to be attendant issues there also of anger and frustration (the brave family battle for the troubled brother), fear of communicating "bad" feelings with the family (letting them down), perfectionism (God wants me to overcome this depression), and overwhelming feelings that were tragically dominant the afternoon she died so rapidly - the method of self-harm is very linked into suicidal ideation survival.

What does this mean? That when a person is feeling suicidal (suicidal ideation) the method they choose to harm themselves has a direct link to survival chances. This is why a lot more  people survive an overdose with drugs, as compared to by gun shot, or hanging. Tragically the child as featured in the TV show had no time to be saved, unlike some other methods (such as OD).

Well, there is probably a book's worth of info I have just typed here. Hope it helps someone - it is easy to be frightened about suicide/self harm/depression especially in relation to our wonderful precious children... but there are strategies and techniques and plans to be put in place.

Best wishes and hugs to all. As an old community health ad used to say “have you hugged your kid today?”

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