National Suicide Prevention Week is September 8-14th. It is important to highlight key differences between why our youngest kids, elementary and middle school, attempt suicide verses their older peers and how to help.
In this age range, kids are more likely to act impulsively than to make a plan to harm themselves, they’re simply not good at long-range planning.
They tend to be “here-and-now” oriented so that means if their "here-and-now" feels overwhelming they may act without anticipating consequences or considering that feelings change.
Higher risk factors include:
Anger issues, as they may direct their anger inward
ADHD due to greater levels of impulsivity
Those who lack a secure, safe connection to a trusted adult
Victims of bullying, cyberbullying and perpetrators
Regardless of the struggle there’s much that can be done to help. The goal is that they can use the skills gained here to see them past the moments where the “here-and-now” feels overwhelming.
1. Talk About Feelings Early and Often
Start talking about "big, hard feelings" from the earliest ages. Help your children recognize and name their feelings. Refer to feelings like anger, grief, loneliness, and sadness as “hard”, “tough” or “rough”. Avoid labeling a feeling as “bad" so that the child doesn’t avoid talking about it or become confused about whether they are “suppose to” feel a certain way.
2. Introduce Mindfulness
Mindfulness is recognizing your thoughts and feelings without judging them. If you have younger kids, try the "Feelings Thermometer" game. During a good moment ask them to name (or you name) an emotion they are currently feeling. Next, have them “take the temperature” of the feeling from 0-10. Continue to “take the temperature" of that same feeling at different times throughout the day. Point out to them that our feelings, and how strongly we feel them, change.
Later, play the Feelings Thermometer game as they are experiencing a hard emotion: name it, take the feeling’s temperature, and check on it throughout the day. Bring back the point that even hard feelings change and praise them for getting through it.
For older elementary and middle schoolers, remanence about how they dealt with a hard situation and how they came through it. Remind them that they are strong enough to walk through hard seasons. Tell a story or remind them of a time you dealt with something hard and how it evolved over time. Show them a path where hard seasons are a part of all journeys but not the whole journey.
3. Point Out, and if needed, Expand their “Team”
Mister Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Point out the trusted adults in their lives, in addition to you, who they can turn to if they need help. Teach them that when they talk about their feelings and struggles it helps to lower the stress they feel. But the biggest effect is when they connect face to face. Texting a friend is better than nothing, but the response in the brain and body is not as strong.
If the help needed exceeds the capacity of their current team, expand it by adding a professional counselor. Let them know that it is always okay to add a specialist to the team.
4. Take Bullying Seriously
Bullying is a major factor in suicidal thoughts and actions at this age. Bullying peaks in 6th grade with 29% of 6th graders reporting experiencing bullying (NCES, 2019). Being the victim of bullying increases the chances of a suicide attempt by 1.7 times. Perpetrators of bullying are 2.1 times more likely to attempt suicide. Victims of cyberbullying are 1.9 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin 2018). If it is happening at school don’t hesitate to bring it to the attention of the school counselor. Schools are some working hard to tolerate zero bullying as they are aware of the toll it takes on their students.
The Megan Meier Foundation is a good resource for help in bullying and cyberbullying situations.
5. Start No Cell Phone Zones
What does this have to do with suicide? Unfortunately, a lot. Both access, content, and time spent can increase suicidal risk.
If your child is the victim of cyberbullying and has a phone, she can't go home to escape her tormentors. Force breaks by declaring times and/or places as “no phone zones”. Not only will this give them a break, but you can use this time for conversations and connection with family. Connection with a trusted adult is an important safeguard. Make sure everyone in the family follows the Zones, parents included.
No phones behind closed doors, especially in bedrooms and bathrooms where you can't monitor how they interact with others or the content they're watching.
A recent study followed almost 4000 adolescents from 7th grade through 10th grade and found that increased time on social media and TV watching increased symptom of depression and negative effects on self-esteem. These effects increased with each year and each hour spent.
Designate public areas in the home where the phone stays and consider having them leave the phone at home when they head off to school. Regularly talk about the content they consume and consider an app like Bark that alerts you to potentially troublesome online activity.
6. It’s Okay to Talk about Suicide
Many parents fear that bringing the subject up will put the thought in their child’s head and make them more likely to harm themselves. It is not the case. It’s okay to say the word and to ask the question, “have you ever thought about committing suicide”, although the phrase "hurt yourself" may be preferred for younger children. Talking about it does give them a vocabulary to name it and the understanding that they can talk to you about hard topics. Be sure they know there are always people ready to talk if they need to. The National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK is always available.
Keep these tips in mind to help build resiliency, community, and safe zones for our kids that can carry them through the rough patches in their journeys.