Tragically, this is leading to increasing numbers of suicides among our teens. In 2006, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, just behind car accidents and homicide. It’s estimated that for every completed suicide, there are 5 or more attempts; attempts that could have been fatal but for the luck of miscalculation about the means or the luck of someone walking in on time.
Kids who make attempts are kids in pain. Attempts are not bids for attention or the use of drama to make a point. These kids don’t necessarily want to die. They want the pain to end and can’t figure out any other way to do it. When teen impulsivity and emotional extremes are added to the mix, the result can be (and too often is) fatal.
What can we do?
- Watch for distress in our own kids. Kids who are chronically angry, who easily lose it, who are visibly upset about going to school or who refuse to go, are actively sending out signals of distress. Kids who are withdrawn and depressed; who spend hours holed up in their own rooms; who claim not to be interested in kids their own age; whose grades plummet – these kids are in more quiet but equally dangerous despair. Parents and teachers can and should talk to them, listen respectfully, and offer help. It’s important to be mindful that unless bullying is handled carefully, the situation can be made worse. Careful cooperation between home and school can make the difference.
- Talk to our kids who don’t seem distressed. Unfortunately, kids don’t always tell us or show us that they are upset. The young girl in the introduction to this article was close to her parents, was pretty, smart and sociable, and seemed to have many friends. Recent arguments about dating turned vicious, then tragic. The lesson for us as parents is how critical it is to talk about bullying whether or not the kids bring it up. It’s important for our adolescents to know that we understand how awful the teen years can be and how unfairly sometimes kids treat each other. We can help them understand that the opinions of others don’t have to be a matter of life and death. Even the kids who seem most secure and mature need to be reassured that if they ever feel so depressed and hurt that they even consider suicide, they have sympathetic and helpful support at home.
- Work with our schools to get to the bystanders. Bullying isn’t just about the bullies. Without bystanders laughing, cheering, passing on damaging texts or pictures, or even just quietly going along, most bullying evaporates – or at least is confined to the few kids the other kids see as bullies. Teens collude with bullies or don’t stand up to them because they fear the bully; because they want to fit in; because they don’t want to be classed with a “loser;” or because they simply don’t know how to stop it. Our schools, youth organizations, and teams are important forums for teaching the consequences of becoming part of the “mob” that goes along with bullies rather than blocking or deleting their messages of hate. Parents and teachers can work together to foster an environment of safety and support in our middle and high schools. We need to actively teach our kids how to say no to bullying – whether it is directed at themselves or at others – and to feel safe doing it.
- Set an example. Perhaps more than ever before, we adults need to set an example of civility and leadership. Our kids are always watching us as role models for what it is to be an adult. Actions really do speak much louder than words. It’s important that they see us treating vulnerable people with compassion and understanding. Consistently speaking up when someone puts another person down or jokes at another’s expense models doing what’s right, even when it may be uncomfortable to do so.