“Time is a scarce commodity”.
In discussing this heavy topic on suicide ideation with Yen-Lu, co-founder of Over The Rainbow (OTR), he highlighted the importance of parents spending time and listening to their children. In 2009, Yen-Lu and his wife, Yi Ling Chow, bore the tragedy of losing their only child to suicide. Upon recognising the rampant occurrence of suicide ideation and mental health distress amongst youths, Yen-Lu and Yi Ling have dedicated the past 13 years to building an empathetic and safe community to support parents and youth in their mental wellness journey through OTR.
In view of suicide ideation, Yen-Lu brought up an important question of why does one begin thinking about their own death? In today’s competitive society, children are constantly exposed to academic pressure and high expectations of excelling in different areas. This stirs an internal debate on one’s self-worth and value, and unfortunately, most teens spawn negative perceptions about themselves which is otherwise known as low self-esteem. He shared that “children now are feeling a huge sense of worthlessness” and such feelings of hopelessness and helplessness snowball into suicidal thoughts. While acknowledging that there can be many possible causes of low self-esteem and suicidal ideation, Yen-Lu raised the significance of parental interactions in building or breaking their child’s self-esteem.
“Affirmation of their worth starts at home”
After a tiring day of school filled with back-to-back classes and extracurricular activities, the last thing our children would want to hear at home is that “you’re not good enough”. More often than not, family conversations tend to centre around school grades or achievements, and such conversations embed subtle indications on the child’s inadequacy to meet parental expectations. Yen-Lu suggested that parents should instead create a safe haven at home and hold conversations about things that matter to the child, rather than harp on school and exams. The most ideal situation would be children spontaneously sharing their thoughts and feelings with parents, although this is sadly not the case. Many children wish they could do so, but parents understandably get caught up in the hustle and bustle of working and managing a household, such that there just isn’t enough time to listen. In that sense, sometimes both parties can feel like strangers who live together. However, acknowledging their feelings and affirming their self-worth can be vastly more significant to them than one may think. German-American philosopher Paul Tillich concurs, stating that “parents need to listen as much to their kids as they do to them: ‘The first duty of love is to listen’.” Truly, what more is proof of love and acceptance and an offering of a safe space as much as the warm, welcoming arms of a parent?
In other instances, suicidal ideation can also come across as attention seeking behaviour, where the child seemingly uses suicide as a threat to get what they want. In response to this, Yen-Lu raised a sagacious observation that if a child feels the need to result in drastic measures–suicidal ideation–to get attention, there must be something amiss. He thus encourages parents to question as such: “Am I giving my child enough attention? Why do they need to do this to get my attention? Am I making them feel safe and secure?”
Sue Atkins, a parenting coach, once said “There is no such thing as being the perfect parent. So just be a real one.” While it is true that perfect parenting is unattainable, it is natural for parents to strive to provide their children with the best. Nonetheless, this often leads to placing a lot of responsibility and blame on themselves when their children fall astray. When it comes to losing a child to suicide, an article by Washington Post found that parents despondently engulf themselves with self-blame and guilt. Yen-Lu also shared that parents can even blame one another and spiral into negative self-reflection and deep regrets. However, he candidly expressed that doing so places focus on oneself and takes away the focus on what the child wants. When our children are ruminating on thoughts about taking their own life, sometimes the best thing to do is to just listen to them. As parents, it is easy for us to impose our own ideals and beliefs onto our children — simply wanting what is best for them. But for Yen-Lu, creating and nurturing this safe space to hear our childrens’ needs is imperative, and should definitely start from childhood. But for those who may have children well into their adolescence, fret not, for it is not too late. Yen-Lu emphasizes, however, that parents should “start right away” to prevent communication shutdown between you and your child.
For children, navigating their intricate emotional landscapes as they grow necessitates a compassionate, open, and safe channel of communication with their parents. Not only that, but being able to spend quality time with our children also better equips one with the ability to discern possible changes in emotions, and subtle cues on what your child might be struggling with in their own lives. It is no secret that our children face stringent academic challenges daily, with overwhelming expectations and comparisons burdening their young shoulders. Children are now feeling a huge sense of worthlessness, Yen-Lu notes, and this stresses the importance of practicing patience and empathy, as acts as simple as listening and making time for one’s child could very well be the powerful deterrent against the isolation and despair that often accompany suicidal ideation, providing that very hope and lifeline to a child that is silently suffering.
For a child to be able to take ownership of their own mental wellness, Yen-Lu asserts that parents must be role-models and first take ownership of theirs.
Navigating the complexities of such a situation necessitates a comprehensive understanding of mental health challenges and appropriate coping methods. Of equal significance is the presence of a parental community that offers the reassurance of shared experiences, underscoring that one is not experiencing this journey in isolation — such a support network can prove immensely valuable. Seeking guidance from mental health professionals or support groups not only equips parents with the tools and knowledge to effectively address their child’s struggles, but also to manage one’s own emotional responses. This develops one’s capacity to provide a stable, secure, and empathetic presence for our child, ultimately being able to prioritize the well-being of our children and family as a whole.
Here at Thrive Psychology Clinic, we believe in cultivating and empowering parents to foster an environment of healing, open dialogue, and resilience for their families. Mental wellness and self-care is something we should commit and take time out on a regular basis to practice, posits Yen-Lu, so our children can also see how it is done. Mental health — and suicide is not something we should be hiding under sheets and whispering about in the dark any longer.
It is real, and not in the least shameful.
Perhaps it is time for us to lift the covers and begin the journey to building a safe, unabashed, and open environment to speak about our mental wellness.
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