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A parent and child embracing with a flower and arch around them Mental Health

Suicide Awareness Month 2020: How to Support Your Child During COVID-19

The Bark Team  |  September 16, 2020

Blowing out the candles during a birthday party with all their classmates. Introducing their crush to a new song by sharing a pair of headphones. Being pulled into their grandparent’s bear hug and relishing the smell of their signature soap. These are just a few of the important moments many kids are missing during COVID-19. It’s undeniable that human connection is important — whether that comes in the form of playing tag at recess or trading secrets during a slumber party. But how much does social distancing affect your child? In recognition of Suicide Awareness Month, we dove into some of the mental health implications this uncertain time can have.

Bark spoke with Tessa Stuckey, a licensed professional counselor specializing in suicidal ideation in kids and author of For the Sake of Our Youth, about what parents and guardians should understand about this critical time.

Suicide Awareness Month: What You Should Know

If your child doesn’t experience depression, you might assume they could never experience suicidal ideation, but that isn’t true, unfortunately. A number of things can contribute to a young person contemplating suicide, including stress, exposure to another person’s suicide, or bullying. In fact, Stuckey says even a lack of building strong connections due to using technology as a coping skill can have a dramatic effect on teens and tweens today. 

“Technology has created the need for instant gratification and there is no instant fix for emotional distress,” she explains. “Once they hit those hormonal, adolescent years, they are met with real, intense emotions and [left] empty-handed.” No matter what your child’s situation is, it’s important to be aware of how to talk to them about suicide, be familiar with crucial resources, and keep an eye out for potential warning signs.

How COVID-19 Can Affect Your Child’s Mental Health

Humans are not meant to be lonely,” Stuckey says. “We are meant to feel connected and feel a sense of community.” Having to Zoom into geometry or meet a new baby cousin over FaceTime due to COVID-19 social distancing rules can have more far-reaching effects than might be immediately obvious. “Without the proper coping skills, resilience, and positive self-talk, a child is more apt to have suicidal ideation,” explains Stuckey. While technology can help your kid catch up with their BFF while staying socially distant, it can only mimic the fulfillment that in-person connections bring for a period of time.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation

If you aren’t very familiar with suicidal ideation, you might not know what to look for if you’re concerned your child might be struggling. It’s important to remember that every kid can present differently when they’re experiencing these thoughts, but here are a couple of signs that something may be wrong.

First of all, pay close attention to any big changes in mood. It may be totally normal for your tween to be super grumpy all through breakfast but perk up around dinnertime. But if you can feel that something is off and they don’t seem like themselves, take note.  

If your kid usually loves nothing more than jumping on the trampoline with their siblings or calling their friend to talk about their new favorite TV show, you should probably pay attention if they start distancing themselves from others. “Isolation, or as I like to [call it], Alone Time, is healthy and fine (and expected for teens) but sometimes it's too much and that can be a sign that things aren't right,” Stuckey says.

More intuitively, an increased interest in death or dying is probably something to pay attention to as well. And if your child expresses that they’ve been thinking about harming themselves or asks to talk with a therapist, be sure to find them the help they need.

It’s important to also remember that sadness, hopelessness, and anger aren’t the only emotions that may point to a suicidal state of mind. Someone who’s considering ending their life may also seem suddenly, uncharacteristically calm right before they intend to die by suicide.

How to Help Prevent Suicidal Ideation

Not sure what you can do to help? Stuckey suggests these tips for supporting your kid’s mental health.

  • Lay the groundwork. One of the most important things you can do is build a strong relationship with your child.
  • Limit lectures. As a parent, it’s so easy to focus on giving your child advice, but set aside some time to just listen, too.
  • Make a screen-time plan. Take the time to walk through a tech contract together to decide on healthy boundaries. Make sure to involve your child in the decision-making process so they feel a sense of ownership.
  • Talk about self-care. Whether your kid feels their best after a long walk outdoors or when they’ve just eaten a nutritious meal, identify some self-care habits that help them.
  • Have tough conversations. It’s not easy to talk about suicide, but it’s so important.
  • Find them additional support. It’s important that your kid feels safe opening up to you, but it can be helpful for them to also be able to talk with a therapist, grandparent, or other trusted adult.
  • Trust them. Your first instinct may be to try to “solve” all your child’s problems, but you should also focus on supporting and trusting them.
  • Think about the way you speak. Be sure that when you’re talking about suicidal ideation, you’re validating your kid’s emotions and speaking empathetically about what they’re experiencing.

Ways to Support Your Child

If your child expresses that they’ve considered suicide, you might feel a need to take control of the situation, but avoid that urge — at least temporarily. “This is a great moment for a parent to just listen,” Stuckey says, “not offer any advice or try to find a way to relate but just listen and empathize.” It’s OK to show your concern, but avoid showing anger or annoyance.

Once you’ve taken the time to listen to your kid express their thoughts and feelings, you can work to find them a therapist that’s a good fit for their unique needs. “Make a plan with your child for whenever they are having dark and heavy thoughts,” Stuckey suggests. Let them know they can always come to talk with you. You can also create a safe space in your home for them to find some comfort whenever they need some peace. Something as simple as setting a super-soft beanbag in a cozy corner with some art supplies might really help.

It’s OK to Not Have All the Answers

While you are your child’s caretaker, it’s important to realize that supporting them through suicidal ideation is a journey — not a one-time event. Lean on your community (including us here at Bark) for resources whenever you need help, instead of assuming you have to do it all alone, and learn more about suicide prevention here. “It is our job as parents to adjust our parenting to help balance what the impact of this culture has put on our kids,” Stuckey says. “Suicide is a scary topic to face as a parent. However, with the way our current world is, we must open our eyes and take it on with a fight."

Bark helps families manage and protect their children’s digital lives.

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