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Hope in the Face of Helplessness

I will never forget how I felt when I walked into my high school band room one spring day in 11th grade and found out John** had committed suicide.  Why him? He seemed to have it all  – he was good at sports and music, he had a girlfriend, he could drive to school, he had a great smile and used it often.  Everyone seemed to walk around in a haze that day.  Why had none of us known, why didn’t he turn to someone, why did he feel that he had no other way out?  His absence not only left a void for his family, but also affected our whole community mostly because most of us felt so helpless and scared. What affected me most was the knowledge that John probably felt increasing levels of helplessness every day until it became too overwhelming to handle.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 years.  That translates to thousands of affected lives, families and communities.  While it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to who “decides” to commit suicide, research indicates that there are some patterns. Teens with the following issues seem to have a higher risk of suicide:

  1. Emotional or behavioral issues like depression, anxiety or bipolar – the more internalization of these feelings, the higher the risk.
  2. Substance abuse issues – disinhibition and impulsivity associated with substance abuse may be a large factor.
  3. Gay, lesbian or transgender youth – feelings of lack of acceptance and substance abuse play a large role.
  4. Teens with access to lethal medications – the thought of “just taking a few to help me feel less or sleep” can lead to overdose.
  5. History of previous suicide attempt – ⅓ successful suicide victims had a previous history of attempt.
  6. Friends or relatives who have committed suicide – this is the phenomenon that is sometimes known as a “suicide cluster” – 1 suicide may set off a “chain reaction”
  7. Teen males – more internalization of feelings and fewer “intimate friends” to share feelings with.

Some parents may look at the above list and breathe a small sigh of relief because they don’t have “that kind of kid” but social pressures and bullying add a completely different nuance.

Bullying is defined as unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  Statistics from 2012 -13 show that 20-22% of children aged 9-18 experience some kind of bullying.  These events may include teasing, name calling, social isolation from a group, or rumor spreading.  Thanks to social media – cyberbullying in the way of spreading rumors, embarrassing pictures, or anonymous threats are becoming more prevalent.  While bullying does not directly cause suicide, it does increase the risk of mental health issues like depression that can then increase risk of suicide.  Research is indicating that children who both bully and are being bullied are at highest risk.

The above list is helpful but not always easy to identify in an age group that is so good at looking and acting one way and feeling completely differently.  Another research list helps identify behaviors in teens that may suggest an issue with mood or suicide risk.  They are as follows:

  1. An acute change in grades or appearance – especially neglect.
  2. Getting into trouble or becoming very rebellious – especially when there is an abrupt change in friendships
  3. Drug or alcohol use
  4. Abrupt changes in sleep patterns
  5. Increased complaints about feeling sad, overwhelmed, writing or talking about suicide,
  6. Behaviors that inflict harm on self-such as cutting or taking a “few extra pills”.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and many other organizations have great information on what parents can do to help at risk children.  Getting professional help right away – even emergent help by calling 911 or going to the emergency room is the right answer. Routinely checking in with children about their feelings and addressing any mood related issues with the pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist makes sense.   Data from 2013 illustrates that suicide by a firearm belonging to a family member is at a 12 year high.  Therefore, there is strong encouragement to move or store all guns safely – a death may be prevented if a weapon is not available.  Social media is very quickly becoming a blessing and a curse in our children’s lives so it is so important to monitor their time on the screen as well as what they are watching.

I can’t help but admit that I still feel helpless even when I know the above facts – it sometimes feels like it is almost too late for some teens by the time we identify risks and try our best to address issues through the proper channels.  What can us as parents and schools do better?  How can we help just one child not feel quite as helpless?  I want to look at my children and tell them that life will never be too stressful or that everyone will always be considerate of their feelings and struggles but I know it is just not possible.  How can I offset the entire negative that sometimes seems to inundate life?

As I pondered these seemingly unanswerable questions, two words that kept coming back to me:  connection and resilience.  I envision these concepts helping our children build the armor they need to create a more positive everyday environment for them.  The beautiful thing about these concepts is they can be built on every day with very simple words and actions that everyone can do.

In the world of dual income families, travel sports, academic and social pressures, we all feel so pressed for time.  We are always “around people” but it is important to make time for true connectedness.  Asking children simple questions about their day like their best and worst parts or asking about whom they played with on the playground or who they sat with at lunch can help open up discussion about fun and challenging parts of their day.  Staying connected with classroom events like Field Day or sporting events helps them realize that we care about the “little things”.  Year after year, studies continue to show that teens value their parents’ opinions and thoughts very highly – teens do appreciate our interest in their day deep inside – way deep inside.  Teaching our children some “street smarts” – playing around adults and reporting bullying behavior may go a long way in giving them a sense of control.

In addition to connectedness, I feel very strongly about the intangible skill of resilience.  Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly or spring back from difficulties that we encounter.  While I feel that it is very important for us as a society to help make our children feel as safe and secure as possible, it is impossible to guarantee positivity all of the time.  Dr. Ginsberg of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has written a wonderful article on where he defines the 7 “Cs” that can help teach our children become resilient.  I will link his full article but here is his list with what those words mean to me.

  1. Competence and Confidence – the feeling of knowing that you can handle what is put in front of you -the feeling you have when you are taking a  test you are well prepared for or  a safe area or have a safety net of friends who will stand with you. Children should be told what their strengths are and be encouraged to “play to them” to build positive self-esteem.     Homework and good study habits certainly help build a sense of competence for our children when it comes to academics but how do we help them learn emotional competence?  I feel that the most important way to help build emotional competence is by allowing our children to “be in charge of something” and letting them know that it is normal and expected that mistakes will happen.  Learning through experience and owning mistakes helps us all realize that it is “OK” if things do not always go a certain way and that challenges in a process are part of eventual success.  The knowledge that most mistakes are not as catastrophic as they seem and that an alternate solution to a situation is not wrong are invaluable realizations that breed the feeling of competence. “Making everything perfect” for our children delays the growth of competence and often gives them the message that they are not “able” to fix anything on their own.
  2. Connection – the feeling of knowing that people around you care about what you are doing or feeling. We perceive connection when we feel like we have permission to share accomplishments, frustrations, or fears with a group of people. For children, that is us – parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches or friends.  Letting our children know that they are important and relevant goes a long way towards feeling connected.
  3. Character and Contribution – as my children’s’ principal used to say – “character is how you choose to behave when no one is watching” and contribution is knowing that you impact a bullying situation where you feel that you can use your voice effectively, walk away to others around you just by being you. Letting a 2 year old observe the reaction of the child they snatched a toy from or gave a cookie to is a very tangible way to teach the concept how their actions contribute to the mood at the playdate.  Age appropriate volunteer opportunities in the community help families feel connected to their community and help children understand empathy for those around them going through challenges.
  4. Coping and Control – how we react to a situation at that moment and how we choose move forward from it. Consistent discipline helps children learn that their emotions are not “wrong”- it is ok to feel angry, sad or frustrated but hitting, screaming, or biting are not acceptable methods of coping with those emotions.  Modeling the emotions you are feeling with situations like a friend moving away or loss of a family pet help children learn that sad things happen but we usually succeed at finding our way to a “new normal”.

None of the above is foolproof but when faced with a traumatic situation like suicide; it helps me to have something to “try” or “to do”.  It is also important for all of us to realize that we can make an impactful difference to those around us by just being who we are – we don’t have to be perfect and be connected or competent “all of the time” – a smile, a nice word, or empathy is sometimes be just enough.

Cited and helpful links:

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