Guest Blogger: Jennifer Valentine
More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, flu, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED (CDC 2020).
As we do in motherhood, I learned kids have different levels of resiliency. We moved to Indiana seven years ago. My oldest kids were starting 8th and 5th grades. Our two youngest began Pre-K and kindergarten. Our life was pretty normal for having four kids. They were involved in sports, clubs, and activities around town. My son, the 5th grader, began middle school on the honor roll and playing lacrosse. He had a bunch of friends and had plenty of sleepovers and birthday parties to attend. However, by the time he was in 8th grade, his grades plummeted and so did his friend group.
I continually asked him to call or text friends and he would, only to have them not respond or reply that they were busy. He began his freshman year of high school pretty much friendless and with low self-esteem. It turns out, that can be a deadly combination for some children.
One night, toward the end of that school year, I received a call at 12:30 am. Calls at this time are never good. On the other line was my son’s friend, who had attempted suicide 8 months earlier, thankfully, with some quick thinking, my son was able to save his friend’s life.
With a shaky voice, the boy yelled, “Quick, find Noah, he’s going to harm himself.” My once fun-loving, honor roll, and lacrosse-playing son had done the unimaginable, he attempted suicide. I found him, in our basement, sitting on a chair with a belt around his neck. Remembering how he looked still brings tears and emotions of relief and joy mixed with a terrifying feeling of what might have been, had I never received that call. I took the belt off of his neck and held him for a long time. Grateful that night and every day since for the opportunity to see his beautiful smile and kind eyes.
Teach your kids to love themselves for all the things that they are and will become.
Thankfully, a few weeks before this incident we were made aware of St. Vincent’s Stress Center during one of his counseling sessions with a psychologist. He stayed 7 nights. Upon completing his stay he continued group therapy. This is where he truly opened up and found his voice and the value of making good decisions instead of easy ones.
Group Therapy is where he found the strength and courage to talk about his mental health and understand that he was in control. He was able to share ideas about how to alleviate the pain and isolation that other participants were also feeling.
It turns out, he taught me something too. This is where I watched, listened, and decided that we can either hide behind the diagnosis of depression and continually manage the secrets and sadness, or we speak up as a family and support others, it doesn’t seem so scary then.
Kids need to have opportunities and encouragement to speak up, to talk about their feelings, and share with those in their lives what is happening, all kids need to be B.R.A.V.E.
B -Believe in themselves and their feelings
R -Review their present situation (good or bad)
A -An Act to get help (list of who they can count on)
V -Able to be vulnerable and feel validated
E -Explain their position and needs
How can we support our kids and help them build strength mentally? We can teach them self-care. Noah received many different tools from the Stress Center and group therapy that followed:
Teach children to take care of themselves at an early age. This relates directly to your body’s state of being. A mindful and nutritious diet, regular exercise, and sleep. Also, teach them about being in tune with your bodies needs.
Teach children mental self-care that involves activities that lead to a healthy and positive mental state, like practicing positive affirmations or keeping a gratitude journal.
Teach children emotional self-care to help them feel, accept, understand, and express their emotions. Teach and practice mindful observation without judgment, this is difficult. Noah found creating art to be a form of pleasurable focus.
Teach children intellectual self-care by thinking and acquiring knowledge. Build and fuel your mind. Try healthy habits like watching documentaries, learning an instrument, or practicing a puzzle (word, sudoku, etc.).
Teach children about spiritual care that involves mental focus rather than material focus. Discuss a sense of awe and wonder, even amongst those who might think or believe differently than you do.
Teach children about social self-care. Being social is natural to humans and it is as vital as eating and sleeping. Without interaction, the parts of the brain that are responsible for empathy and self-regulation don’t develop properly. If your kids don’t have a group of friends to socialize with, they can volunteer or join a club/organization. Learning to give compliments as a family can help promote self-care.
Teach children about practicing decluttering. Think of this as clearing your mind by clearing the clutter. A good example of this is decluttering a drawer. It is beneficial to your mental and emotional health. The next time you open the drawer you will experience mental ease rather than frustration. Decluttering could be donating items you don’t use, cleaning your room, doing laundry, or even just creating and simplifying your to-do list.
Navigating the mental health of our children is like having a full kayak that is heading the wrong way up a winding river in the middle of nowhere. You can’t see the destination, some places are rocky, sometimes you have guidance, but it’s always challenging. Therapy has given me a life preserver at times when I felt like I needed to rest and let someone else take over. Everyone in the kayak must get some help now and then.
The kids who struggle the most are the ones who try to be somebody they aren’t
Building confidence and strength in kids takes time. It takes raw honesty and sometimes difficult discussions. It takes a peaceful mind to engage in hard topics. I think oftentimes, the kids who struggle the most are the ones who try to be somebody they aren’t because they are somehow led to believe that who they are isn’t “right” or “cool”. Honestly, only they can truly love themselves and make healthy decisions about how their life will be. Every kid needs encouragement to find their voice, to advocate for themselves, and know that their ideas are important. So, let’s start there. Teach your kids to love themselves for all the things that they are and will become.