Motherhood can be a dream. Nothing compares to welcoming your own children into the world, watching them take their first steps, hearing their first words, seeing them make friends, going to school, graduating, starting their careers, their own Starting a family …
Motherhood can also be a nightmare. Nothing is more excruciating than seeing your children hurt, bullied, or in pain. No terror is greater than seeing your children in danger or putting yourself in danger. No loss is more devastating than the loss of a child.
Motherhood was both a dream and a nightmare for me. I gave birth to two children a few decades ago. In 2010, one of them suddenly and unexpectedly left it with his own hand. He was nineteen years old.
Whether I could have prevented my son’s untimely death is a question that I can never answer and that I had to give up a long time ago to come to terms with my grief. What I do know is that sharing my personal experiences with suicide and suicide prevention will reduce the likelihood that other parents will face a similar tragedy as me – and it can also open the door to a happier future for their families.
* Before reading any further, please note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. *
In the years leading up to my son Logan’s death, I knew he was struggling inside. We had seen numerous doctors making different diagnoses and prescribing different drugs to “fix” it, whatever that meant. This unsuccessful process drained our relationship, and we had not spoken for several weeks the day it committed suicide.
Looking back, I can see so many red flags that could indicate suicidal intent. Understanding these warning signs is, in my opinion, vital for all parents – whether you imagine your children are at risk or not. The following list is not comprehensive, but is a good place to start.
What you say
No one reading this will be shocked to hear that teenagers and pre-teens are not known to be overly talkative with their parents. However, in moments when they do open up to you, there are a few things to watch out for:
1) Expressions of hopelessness, helplessness or excruciating pain
2) Talk about life being worthless
3) worry about being a burden on others
4) a feeling of oppression or imprisonment
How you feel
As parents, we’ve all done it: we’ve dismissed emotional outbursts or tantrums in our children as “growing pains” or chalked them up on roaring hormones. However, not all mood changes in teens are harmless, and none of them should be ignored. As you check in with your children, be aware of the following feelings:
4) shame and humiliation
5) sudden fits of relief
The latter may sound confusing, but it is actually one of the most significant and scary mood-related warning signs as it can imply a determination to take suicidal action.
What they do
Our children are experimenters from day one, and that’s a nice thing! Your interests and habits will develop into adulthood over time. But the following drastic, seemingly unsolicited behavior changes can be symptoms of an underlying crisis:
2) withdrawal from activities
3) changed attitudes towards friends and family members
4) creating questionable relationships
5) acts of aggression
6) irregular or changing sleep patterns
7) onset or increase in substance use
8) Giving away valuable possessions
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is an excellent resource for identifying risk factors and warning signs, and I recommend checking out the organization’s page on the topic. In addition, I am happy to answer questions and provide personalized insights at any time. (You can find the contact details at the end of this article.)
To become active
So how do we get on after identifying common indicators of internal unrest? What can we do for the people we love most to prevent self-harm or suicide?
The following list of actions may seem extremely simple, but that’s a bright spot in this dark discussion: The things we can do to keep our children safe are easy. Still, they take time, consistent effort, and real care.
The healing process from any mental or emotional stress begins with opening up why Active listening is at the top of my list. Whenever your child is talking to you – even if the subject seems trivial – make sure that your ears and mind are focused. While they may not want or need your input or advice, knowing that you are listening to them and taking care of you can make the difference between coming with their problems and deciding to hide them or avoid them altogether.
2) Start a conversation
Have one detailed conversation, which includes both your honing listening skills and asking gentle questions, can be especially daunting as you watch your children navigate the troubled waters between teenage and young adulthood. But this is only the age window in which such heart-to-hearts are so important for healthy development – and as uncomfortable as they may feel at first, they get lighter the more often you have them.
As for strategy, the key here is making sure your child doesn’t feel cornered. I recommend starting small by asking specific but casual questions while you’re alone in the car or preparing dinner after school. What was the best / worst / funniest thing you did in class? Who did they have lunch with (and was it good)? What are you looking forward to tomorrow? The answers you get may not be deep or detailed. However, by showing interest, you open the door for future conversations.
3) Take quality time
As it turns out, the quantity of time you spend with someone isn’t as important as the quality of that time. Whether you and your child have ten minutes or several hours a day together, this time will be most effective and enjoyable when you are fully committed. This means putting down phones and other electronic distractions – unless, of course, you use them to communicate with each other! – and to be present in the present activity. Show your child that you can play and have fun, and that you value being with them.
4) seek help
If while listening, speaking to, and spending time with your child raises concerns that you cannot resolve, it is time to seek professional help. Consulting your GP can be a solid starting point as they are likely to be familiar with your child’s medical history and can also direct you to local mental health providers. As scary as this step may seem, it could also be the most important one that you take. It could be the step that will save your child’s life.
While Logan’s story – our story – is tragic, I no longer see it from the dire perspective I had when his life ended. I have been fortunate to discover how much hope and inspiration there is in my journey, and I have found my heart’s calling to share it with others.
Whatever problems you or you and your family have, I encourage you to turn to me for support, guidance, and healing. Send me a message at cathleenelle.com and I’ll get in touch with you personally.