You probably will not believe me when I tell you that good, loving, and well intentioned parents often do not listen to their children when they express thoughts of distress or suicidal ideation. It doesn’t seem possible but it is true. As a therapist I have worked with children/adolescents in distress and asked them if they shared their feelings of hopelessness with family and most often the response is yes. They have then gone on to share that to their surprise nothing changed. The kids are often perplexed why little to no changes occurred when they shared something so painful and profound. As a therapist I have spoken with parents about their child’s suicidal thoughts and many times I have needed to convince parents to seek additional support/treatment. Why would a caring parent not seek help for their child immediately when so much is at stake?
After years of observation, I have come to believe that a parent’s own beliefs and defenses surface which leads to a struggle to absorb the thought that their child could truly be suicidal. Yes, maybe they have been a bit down or stressed but…. The rationalizing and minimizing of this very real challenge is truly disturbing and needs to be acknowledged. No other health issue would be met with such reluctance to pursue additional treatment.
The idea that a parent can control and protect their child is a powerful and consuming belief that is simply not accurate and one that makes less and less sense as kids get older. In addition, the belief that we know what is best for our child is often flawed as well. The idea that we can be everything to our children leads us to dangerous assumptions and behavior choices.
While we have continued to work to remove the stigma of mental health needs, we need to do more. Parents need to do more. Listen to your kids if they tell you they are struggling and get them help now. By the time your child tells you about their struggles, chances are good they have been trying to cope for some time and haven’t been able to manage.
Do your own work and explore your beliefs about mental health, depression and the contemplation of ending a life through suicide. Your kids need you to be there for them and that means putting your own beliefs aside and hearing them when they are in distress. We can all do a better job at listening to each other but in this area, it is critical for parents to be at their best and be ready to listen.