Helping Teens When They Need It Most
This is Suicide Prevention Week, a fitting time to reinforce the power of relationships as a literal life saving force. We all need connection with others; to feel valued, accepted as we are, with warmth and compassion. Teens especially, rely on connections, with peers and adults, to develop a sense of who they are as individuals, while learning and growing in so many ways at once. Maryland Department of Health Suicide Prevention Toolkit is a great resource which highlights the ideals of “Connect.Respond.Heal.Thrive.” They state, “Research shows that social connection improves physical, emotional and mental health, and it can reduce the likelihood that someone will consider or attempt suicide.”
Efforts to connect with the teens in our lives and in our care, as well as allow space for them to connect with each other, can make the difference between life or death. They need to know they are cared for, even when they are not at their best, may not seem receptive, and are struggling. Seems we are in a phase of “reconnecting” with life after the past two and a half years when we needed to be separate, masked, and guarded. We are all beginning to let our guards down more and allow each other back in as we heal, which can be both reassuring and scary. There are things we can all do (parents, therapists, mentors, coaches, educators and other caretakers) to help teens feel cared for and that they matter. Here are some ideas in the spirit of strengthening relationships, so our teens feel connected, have their needs responded to, heal, and ultimately thrive:
Connect daily and ongoing. Let teens know we care about them even when they are screwing up or making us frustrated or angry. Name the specific things they say and do, or qualities, that you value in them. When there are things they are going through that we may not be able to control or change, simply expressing how much they mean to us can be huge. Promote teens connecting with their friends and value those peers as important resources. It can be easy to judge how teens spend their time (social media, video games, being out more than at home). When implementing reasonable limits, also acknowledge appreciation for the role your teens’ friends play in their lives (both in person and virtual).
Respond if you notice something is off or different from what you usually expect. Ask them how they are doing and what they may need. Describe what you are noticing and that you care to understand how they feel. Don’t be afraid to ask if they are safe or if you need to be concerned about their safety. If they give you any indication safety may be a concern, ask more specific questions about suicidal thoughts or plans. If they need more help, connect them with helping resources, a school counselor, doctor, therapist, or hotline (988 is now live). Remember to follow up repeatedly over time to make sure they are improving (repeat “connection.”)
Heal by allowing vulnerability, yours and theirs. Honest expression of emotion and having people to listen without judgment allows difficult feelings to move through. Emotions are energy and when it builds up or gets stuck, it makes us feel awful. Motion through expression (in any way that works) can allow for release of that energy (E=emotion, Motion=expression). Having space to navigate and tolerate discomfort until it passes or lessens with time requires reception with patience. Let them know it is ok to take their time and not be at their best for a while.
Teens can Thrive when they feel respected/valued, are allowed to be and feel what is authentic, feel received with kindness, know what to expect from the adults in their lives as reliable supports, even when circumstances are really hard, and feel truly accepted. These are the skills for building strong relationships. With supportive relationships, there is nothing teens can’t do or get through.
Wishing everyone well at the start of this school year.
Julie Baron, LCSW-C