As a licensed mental health professional, I’ve worked in a variety of hospital settings where I have worked with adults and teens who have tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. The vast majority of those who survived their suicide attempt were so grateful to have survived their attempt. Almost all of them want to learn how to better cope with life so that they never reach a point that they feel so hopeless, desperate and impulsive again. In working with family members after a loved one’s suicide attempt, it has been challenging to explain how their loved one could reach such a hopeless state of mind that suicide was the only or best option.
As a mother to two teenage boys, one of my goals is to teach them how to manage life’s emotional challenges like not getting that job they really want, not making the varsity team, or the breakup of their first true love. Recently, I was assessing a teenage patient in the ICU who barely survived a very serious suicide attempt after the breakup of his first serious relationship. As I talked to him and his family, I couldn’t help but to ask myself “What if that were my son?” This particular young man had a very bright future academically, yet he felt so emotionally distraught that the only solution in his mind was to take a bottle of pills.
Throughout my years of practice, I’ve learned that when people are unable to acknowledge, understand or cope with emotional pain, anger, sadness, or grief in a healthy way that they typically turn to unhealthy ways of coping like misusing drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. Alternatively, they may engage in impulsive and dangerous behaviors including cutting and suicide. As a therapist, my work with these clients is to help them recognize, understand, and better cope with their emotional pain in a healthier way.
Emotional intelligence is a term that relates to one’s ability to recognize their own emotions, other people’s emotions, AND to manage unpleasant emotions in a healthy way. Studies show that people who have high emotional intelligence and emotional resiliency are much less likely to self harm either by cutting or attempting suicide or to misuse drugs and alcohol. When children demonstrate high emotional intelligence, they are more likely to use healthy coping skills and have healthier relationships with others. However, it is rare that our children’s school curriculum includes teaching about emotional intelligence, so it’s one of those things that we have to learn on our own.
How can parents influence their children’s emotional intelligence?
There are many things that parents can do to teach and model emotional intelligence and emotional resiliency to our children. In addition to teaching our children how to read, tie their shoes, and how to drive a stick shift, we need to also teach them about emotions. We need to show them that it’s okay to ask for help when we are struggling. We can normalize their emotions when they are sad, lonely, or down on themselves. We can be brave enough to share our own pain as children and teenagers like not getting asked to the prom. We can talk to our children as we watch news stories about people who deal with their anger or fear in an unhealthy or illegal way. We can support and encourage our children when they talk to us about something that is bothering them. We can avoid labeling or degrading those who seek counseling or psychiatric care for anxiety, depression or to simply improve their mental health. We need “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.” We need to model to our children healthy ways of coping with life’s stressors, challenges and heartbreaks. We need to have conversations about ways to manage stress with our children and encourage them to find their own healthy stress management skills. We need to talk with them about how to forgive ourselves if we make a mistake. We need to teach them to problem solve so that they don’t repeat mistakes. We need to talk to them about healthy relationships and what makes a relationship abusive. These types of conversations may not come as easily to some parents as conversations about their homework and chores. But, the payoff to your child is well-worth your effort.
It is normal to want to protect our children from both physical and emotional pain in life. Of course, most parents acknowledge that we cannot protect them from everything, but we can prepare them for life. We need to do more than tell our children not to cry, to just suck it up, to get over it, to forget about it, or to be strong. As parents, we need to acknowledge and talk about ALL the emotions we experience in life. We need to be human and share with our children how we learned to cope with our disappointments, break-ups/divorces, job losses, financial crises, and deaths of loved ones. When children, teens, and adults feel supported and capable of handling life’s emotional ups and downs, they are much less likely to reach a place of hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation where self-harm or suicide feels like the best option.