In many ways young people have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Lockdown, self-isolation and academic disruption have all come at a formative time in children’s and teens’ development, stealing milestone moments and interrupting the emotional and social evolution that would usually happen by default at school or social gatherings.
“We are living through stressful times, and it is taking its toll on the younger generation,” says Dr Marta Ra, CEO of mental health treatment centre Paracelsus Recovery , which offers online consultations to many UAE young people and families. “Tragically, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year olds in the US, and it increased by 178% from 2007 - 2017 amongst 10 to 14-year-olds. Numerous studies show that social media can lead to anxiety and low-self-esteem amongst young people. Our unbalanced work-life ratio also means that more and more parents are spending less time with their children. As a result, children are lonelier than ever before. At our own treatment centre we have seen a marked increase in referrals for young people struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, and self-harm.”
While no parents wants to believe that their child may be depressed, self-harming or even considering hurting themselves more seriously, it is important to be aware of the signs, and to be equipped with the tools to communicate with your child on a sensitive topic that is likely to be difficult to broach.
What are the signs that your child could be depressed or self-harming?
- Social or emotional withdrawal: for example, avoiding video-calls with friends, family dinners or a loss of interest in activities the person once loved.
- Sudden clothing changes: If someone starts wearing more long-sleeved clothes or more jewellery, this could be a way to cover up self-inflicted marks.
- Threatening or talking about suicide: the majority of young people considering suicide will provide a warning sign to a loved one. For example, if your child threatens suicide or makes statements such as ‘you won’t have to worry about me for much longer,’ these are usually a cry for help that should be taken seriously.
While it is a distressing and painful experience to realise that your child is struggling, recovery is possible, and help is available. The first step is to try to talk to your child and work out what help he or she may need. Here, Dr Ra shares five strategies for broaching this topic with your child…
How to talk to your child about self-harm or suicide
Be Mindful of Your Reaction
If you discover that your child is self-harming, be extra mindful of how you respond. If you punish the behaviour or minimise their emotions, it could send a message that they are ‘bad’ and that their suffering is unimportant. Consequently, this could lower their self-esteem or isolate them even further. Instead, try to respond with support and compassion. Acknowledge that you see the pain they are in, and you are here to help them.
Create Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Intense and negative emotions can sometimes be so overwhelming, they leave the individual feeling numb and detached. Self-harm can become a way to express that pain, which brings relief. As a result, it can develop into a hard-to-break coping mechanism.
Try to work with your child to find healthier strategies for dealing with pain. For example, if your child is under 12, encourage as much creative play as possible. When children play, draw, or perform, they use their imagination to enact and process emotions. If your child is older, encourage them to exercise, journal, meditate or engage in any activity which will bring joy and release stress. If the urge to self-harm is immense, encourage them to hold ice as a substitute. If a person squeezes an ice cube, it will create a burning sensation, but it will not do any damage.
Practice Active Listening
When discussing mental health concerns with your child, make sure to give them your full and undivided attention. As the old saying goes, ‘listen with the intention to understand, not respond.’
If your child is young, indirect questions can help elicit answers. For example, think of a character from a storybook or film that is characterised as being ‘down,’ such as Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Asking your child what they think about that character could provide insight into their emotional world.
If your child is over 14 years of age, ask them if they feel suicidal. Asking direct and difficult questions can be helpful because it encourages absolute honesty, which lets the individual know that you take their suffering seriously.
Set Time Aside for Them
Self-harm in childhood or adolescence can be a way of communicating a genuine need for additional support and attention. To navigate this, try to set aside time each week, ideally two or three evenings, that is just for you and them. For example, you could go out for dinner, go for a walk, or even just sit in silence and complete a jigsaw together.
Hold Your Child (Physically and Emotionally)
Someone who is suffering from depression or self-harming will usually feel very disconnected from others. To navigate this, remind your child that you love them unconditionally, and try to hug them as much as possible. When we hug a loved one, our brains release oxytocin. Known as the ‘love hormone,’ this will help us feel happier, safer, and less alone. If your child refuses to hug you, even simple acts, such as holding their hand or stroking their back, will help release those much-needed neurochemicals.
Finally, above all else, if you are worried your child is hurting themselves, seek professional help. Mental health issues are akin to physical issues in that the sooner the individual seeks treatment, the less long-term damage. For example, contact your family medicine doctor, a treatment centre, or go to your local emergency room if you believe your child is in danger. In the UAE, parents can book assessments with a child psychologist, which can create a positive change in a relatively short period.