Note: This probably has a ton of typos! Do excuse. I’ll catch them on reread.
If you have an actively suicidal child in eminent danger, you need to call 911 or your local crisis hotline. Here are local Richmond, VA crisis hotlines.
See my disclaimer here but suffice to say that these are my thoughts based on presenting to teens, parents, social workers and from my training. I’m not a social worker or psychologist. Just my experience as a mother who lost a son to suicide as a result of depression and substance use disorder.
These are tips you implement regardless of whether you know your child suffers thoughts of suicide. It can also prevent substance abuse because it helps kids develop coping skills which can negate the need to numb a problem instead of solving it.
It won’t necessarily prevent any behavior that is genetically predisposed but it does help build confidence. These are tips focused on doing the best you can to prevent, build resilience and give your child the ability to solve problems–a skill they will use for a lifetime.
Do not hesitate to get professional help when you need it. This isn’t for every situation. Sometimes there are issues you simply can’t fix or don’t have the expertise to work through.
Guidelines for raising resilient kids
1. Listen more, lecture less
This is the cornerstone of this post. No one, including you, your teen, your husband, your friends, want to be told what to do.
First, understand that if you ask things at first, your child might not give you an answer or open up for a number of reasons. Be patient because this takes time and you are re-building a different kind of relationship with your child. One in which you are still parent, but allows them to make decisions.
This is a learning experience for you, too and it takes a while to make this adjustment. But when you do, it rocks. This is a similar method to this book, Parenting with Love and Logic, a book I read about 18 years ago. that was focused on younger children. But here is a 66-page book called Motivating Teenagers that will outline how you talk with your teen.
Empower your children to help you break the lecture habit. When was the last time your kids listened to one of your lectures and relished the words and followed your precious wisdom? Never? That’s not a good percentage is it? So start a conversation with your pre-teen or teenager.
“Hey, I want to break a habit. I want to stop lecturing you because I realize it’s not helpful. Can you help me do that?” Ask them to remind you when you go into lecture mode because you often get lost in that moment. After all breaking a habit is not easy. So when they do stop you from lecturing at any point, you say “thank you.” Laugh at yourself, make fun of yourself. You say, “Oh you are right. Old habits are so hard to break!”
Guess what? Mistakes are where people learn. And we want them to learn from mistakes with small price tags.
They may actually start to ASK you for advice. My oldest son does now because he knows I’m going to let him be part of the process.
And when I start spouting off advice he doesn’t want? He says, “Hey mom, you are offering unsolicited advice.” I laugh and tell him he is right and thank him for telling me.
2. Ask questions on how they would solve problem
This is the listen more, lecture less part.
If a teacher calls about homework, you can tell them the teacher contacted you and ask them how should you answer that instructor. Then just accept the answer. They may make excuses, they might not do it. You then start to panic, sure this means they will never get into a good college and will fail at life! Do you really need to project scenarios and worry about things that have not happened? You don’t want them to get to college or trade school or whatever and not be able to make a decision because you made all big decisions for them.
Here is a good 66 page book called Motivating Teenagers on how to do this. I read it over 10 years ago and it changed how I spoke with my teenagers and it worked for my oldest. It took time and I still relapse into lecture occasionally. What I love about it is that it engages your teen in the process of making decisions and solving problems. This is how you build resilience. Kids need practice, they need to learn from their mistakes. And yes, they are going to have some terrible solutions but let them find that out.
My son was moving to California and told me over the phone that he was taking all of his furniture with him. They had accumulated some nice things and he didn’t want to leave them behind. In my parent mind all sorts of issues sent up red flags but I kept my mouth shut and listened. Then at the end I said, “I know you are couch surfing when you first get there. What will you do with all your stuff? And how much do you think it would be to haul it all out there ? I’m not worried though, because you are smart and I know you will figure all of this out.”
I just asked those two questions and expressed my confidence that he’d be able to figure out a plan. All of this planted a seed. After the call my son got to thinking and decided to find out how much it was to move the stuff and how much it would be to store it. I got a call a week later and my son said, “Mom, we decided not to take all our stuff and we will sell it instead. It would be thousands to move it–more than it’s worth.” After I let him tell me more, I commended him for making an informed decision and left it at that.
3. Ask their advice
You have dilemmas. Why not engage the help of your teenager? Sure, they may come up with an answer that is not perfect. Keep asking questions. At some point, if it’s appropriate, try one of their ideas and report back to them on how it worked out, even if it didn’t work out well. This is how you get them to start trusting you. Tell them when you think they have a good idea. You’d be surprised what some of their ideas are.
If they missed the deadline for a paper and got a bad grade as a consequence, empathize with them. Then ask them what they might do differently next time. Then just listen. Do not judge and say, “those ideas are worth trying.”
You don’t want to engage their opinion on big things they can’t fathom an answer for. At least not at first. But don’t shelter and shield them from everything. If someone in your family lost a job and changes have to be made, you don’t burden them with how that parent finds a job but rather what are some ways the family can cut back to curtail expenses.
If you have a vacation coming up and your usual pet sitter is not available, ask your child to help you brainstorm solutions. You might even know what you are going to do next but get them involved. If you have a difficult situation at work such as having to work with two co-workers who don’t get along, for example, ask them if they have any suggestions. They may not. But I will bet they will think about how they might handle the situation. And they’ll probably ask you later for an update. Kids like to be included and thought of as worthy of presenting a solution.
This helps them move into into developing problem solving techniques.
So they share with you an issue they are having. You do not lecture! Instead, you are going to ask questions. “What do you think you want to do about that?” Then just listen and express that you have confidence that they’ll figure it out. This is where that 66 page book comes in handy. It’s not super easy to do this at first. So give yourself some credit for one good change and keep at it.
Warning, don’t make them a pawn in a bitter divorce. There are healthy ways to for families to cope and my advice is to find a lawyer that engages family counseling as part of the process.
4. Express some of your own feelings
You can’t expect them to open up if you don’t. When I speak to teens I start by telling my story, by being vulnerable and revealing how I felt after losing Charles. How I felt like a crummy mother and how I worked through those feelings. How I made the decision that I couldn’t heal if I did not feel and made the personal decision not to drink at all while grieving this loss.
If you lost your mother and never shed a tear in front of your children, how will they ever know what grief is? If you lose your job, it’s OK to say it hurts, that so much of your identity was wrapped up in that job and losing it was a crushing blow. They don’t have to solve this problem, you don’t have to constantly complain to them but you can express how it makes you feel. Let your kids know it might make you crabby and maybe you just need a hug and some understanding.
5. Do not invalidate their feelings
If they start sharing with you, do not invalidate their feelings by saying, “you’ll get over it” or some other dismissive statement. Empathize with them.
If it’s a break up, for example, just say, “Tell me about it.” Connect with their pain. Again, no lecture. Don’t say, “You’ll find other boyfriend/girlfriend.” You can say divorce/breakup is hard and say things like, “I see you really cared for him/her.” ‘I can see that you are hurt and I wish I could fix it. What I can do is listen. Any time you want to talk.” Ask questions to encourage them to talk more. And again, express confidence they’ll work through it and you are there for them. Listening with empathy is the most important thing.
6. Set limits on digital devices
Everyone tells you to monitor their activity online. They have more clever ways to hide things in apps and erase history and passwords than you could count. In our household, my kids actually did not know more but this is unusual. I still set limits. Those apps are stranger danger times ten. Fifty five percent of all human trafficking happens online and focuses on middle and upper class American kids. Your kids can easily become victims of bullying, abuse, or unknowingly recruiting friends into the sex trade. And it can happen under your nose the whole time. (If you want an education, watch the teen show Euphoria on HBO.)
Especially at night, don’t let a laptop or phone go in that room when sleep is supposed to happen. Mental illness is exacerbated when kids don’t get the sleep they need which is most of the time these days. So how will they listen to music? Either find an old iPod on eBay with no internet access or get them a clock radio. Same with the alarm.
When you hand over that smartphone you are basically giving them the keys to the world at an age when they are vulnerable and not ready for it. Limits should be set right from the beginning.
7. Create more opportunities for connection
Have more get togethers at your house, have relatives over more often. Sit down and play a old board game. My son Charles loved a game and when the power was out, he’d invite everyone over and he’d draw a ridiculous game and everyone in the neighborhood would be playing by candlelight! What a great memory I have of those times. We’d have dance night, tent night, board game night, unplugged night. I don’t think we did enough of this consistently.
I also had to work with technology to create something every bit as alluring as video games but something that allowed for some creativity and problem solving and face to face connection. So I bought an iMac, put it in the hallway and introduced them to YouTube. Each child created his own channel, and they had to follow the rules. In the years they created these videos, they got friends together, wrote scripts, planned scenes and costumes, learned how to use cameras, edit video, add special effects, and did a lot of problem solving.
Part of the problem today is that kids are getting 45% less face time with friends which has created problems and I believe that break down in community is one of the reasons we are seeing more anxiety and depression. For one, kids have fewer opportunities to learn.
I learned most my negotiation skills because of playing dodgeball and games with friends.
8. Understand that behavior has a root cause
Kids don’t do bad things because they want to be bad. They do it because of some underlying reason. So find out what that reason might be. Depression? Anxiety? Frustration? Fear? Ask them questions. “You said you didn’t want to go to the psychiatrist. Can you tell me why you feel this way?”
It may be they fear that the doctor will prescribe something that will make them a zombie and erase their personality. Understanding where they are coming from helps you and helps them understand the fear is not as big as they thought once they express it.
9. Be a good role model
Kids do what you do not what you say. So if you say, “I can’t relax without a glass of wine,” you are essentially telling your kids, “I need a substance to help me regulate my emotions.” So looking within at your own habits is important.
If you lose it with a neighbor and you realize getting emotional was not a good strategy, tell your kids about your mistake and talk about what you are going to do to rectify the situation. See it as an opportunity to teach by letting them learn from your mistakes. Obviously, you don’t want them to fly in a plane with a friend who doesn’t have a pilot’s license. You do want them to figure out how to improve the damage of a bad test score.
Help kids make decisions by asking questions and let them fail or succeed on small-price-tag events with their own solutions. It’s all about guiding kids through a process of self discovery. If the idea is theirs, they are more likely to try it, own it, follow through, feel pride, build problem solving skills and resilience.