5 Tips To Help You, Your Teens and Young Adults Cope with The Pandemic

Earlier today, I coached a family whose 16 year old had recently attempted suicide. His parents were concerned that he has been at home for the past one year, and amongst other things, had become depressed and anxious. He has been separated from his friends, his teammates and his girlfriend since starting online schooling. His grades are also beginning to suffer, and so is he.

They wanted tools to help them reconnect with their child.

As a pediatrician and speaker on youth suicide prevention, as a coach who works with parents of teens, but most importantly, as a mother of a 16 year old teenager of my own (and with the pandemic lingering on and with no end in sight for our current situation), I think this list might help us parents better manage our relationship with our teens and young adults (YA) at this time.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo recently twitted his concerns about the rising trend of suicide amongst teens. Sadly, this trend also affects our young adults who may or may not be in college as well. Suicide rate in their age range (10 to 34 years) is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death, and that trend seems to be compounded by the pandemic.

As someone who has struggled with suicidal ideations myself, and as an author of a book on teen suicide, I know the loneliness and hopelessness that can occur, and the despair and anguish that accompany them. While chatting with my youngest son tonight, we both came up with the following tips that might help you and your teen or young adult.

Acknowledge and Validate Their Feelings

One thing that I preach about all the time is the need to validate your teen or young adult’s feelings by acknowledging them and empathizing with them. Your teen needs to know that you understand from whence they come. Tell them you get how frustrating and disempowering they must be feeling without access to their friends and peers and all the activities they enjoy.

Share your own frustrations as well. Tell them exactly how you feel and let them see that while you don’t necessarily have all the answers, you do share their fears. However, end with a note of hope. Share your stories of struggles and how you navigated them in the past, listen to them as they share their own stories. Allow your kids to see the vulnerable side of you by sharing a challenging story from your past.

Trust me, children want to know that their parents are just like them in some ways. They do need to know that you have also struggled in life. That you don’t always have the answers. That helps them accept and deal with their own limitations as well, and helps them connect with you on a deeper and might I add, more realistic level.

One of the major issues I notice with some of the parents I coach is the tendency to want their children to think they are perfect. That is a dangerous precedent. Kids need to see their parents show them the full range of emotions that they can express. As an African, I know first hand how our parents almost never show any other emotions besides stoicism. #notgood.

Hang out with your children, enjoy the time with them.

Check-in With Them Frequently

If your teen or YA is currently enrolled in distance or remote learning, find ways to support them through it. We can all agree that these are unprecedented times. In my home, all three children are affected, and each child is dealing with it differently. Since I am home with my high schooler, I can only directly affect him, but I do ensure that I also have access to, and engage with his brothers often.

For his older brothers, we have twice weekly check-ins that have been instituted. Each one calls me on the telephone on a pre-selected day, usually on the weekend. And I in turn have a mental health check-in via text on Wednesdays. I send a simple text message asking how they are doing. These seemingly “little” habits have had the dual effect of keeping open connection lines and reassuring me, the mama bear.

As for my last-man-child (LMC), I frequently stick my head into his room, and ask how his day is going. I make sure he takes frequent breaks from his class computer (which he built himself for his 16th birthday) by walking around every 2 hours or so. We have regular discussions about relevant topics; school, his grades, his friends, who is dating who, football and basketball, his haircut, and even racism and politics…

Encourage Social/Physical Distancing and Wearing Masks

For this, frequent reminders and open-hearted (non-judgemental) discussions are critical. Talk about the fact that ‘their friends might be sick and not know it’ aka asymptomatic. Remind your young’un, that while they themselves might not “get sick”, there is a clear danger of bringing the virus home, and possibly getting you, their grandparents or other family members sick.

This is quite possibly the most challenging part of this entire pandemic for teens and YAs. Because they mostly feel they are invisible and can’t catch the disease, they often balk at the thought of wearing masks or socially distancing. They also fall prey to peer pressure if their friends do not also do the same.

I encouraged my LMC to have his friends come to visit last summer. This idea was a hit, and I watched him and his friends reunite one night outside our home. It was a brief but heart-warming (and much needed) drive-by socially distanced visit with their masks on. The smile on his young face the rest of that evening was all the payment this mama bird needed.

Encourage Healthy Habits

Pandemic or not, we must still champion healthy habits in our children. The usual suspects: adequate rest and sleep, healthy eating and drinking, frequent water breaks, exercise, etc. are all still a daily requirement. In my book “How to Raise Well-Rounded Children”, I state clearly that the one ingredient needed to make our kids do the right thing is us!

Share moments of laughter with your teens

We MUST exemplify any behavior we seek in our children. That means getting with our own program. I love to exercise and read. And my kids see me practicing that daily. My LMC and I bonded with Spanish lessons in the heart of the first lockdown. Those were special moments that we shared each night. I enjoyed the one-on-one, and he got to stay proficient with his spanish, win-win!

These days, we bond through cooking. He has always had a flare for the culinary department, so the lockdown gave him an opportunity to watch a lot of Master Chef and Master Chef-Junior. These TV shows helped him blossom into our very own Chef Boyardee 🙂 These days, he literally picks the recipe, shops for the ingredients and boom! Gourmet meal!

Use Technology to Your Advantage

This last one is simply inevitable in today’s world. I smile as I write this, because I am the world’s most notorious “hater” of technology. But, I am learning that it can be my friend if only I allow myself to find the good in it and learn to use it to my advantage.

While I understand that we don’t want our kids playing video games all day, or stuck to their phones day in and out. I ask for grace for them through these trying times. Allow them to use their phones or play their video games a little longer, as long as they complete their school work and house chores.

Over time, I have learned to give in to my boys and their gaming. It actually warms my heart anytime I pass by my LMC’s bedroom and hear his brothers’ voices on the computer playing with him…bonding with their sibling… or just hanging out. That is such a good feeling!

We also used the power of Zoom to celebrate my eldest son’s graduation from Stanford last year, attend my brother’s son’s christening, and check in with the extended family and long lost friends from time to time. Thank goodness for that, I truly can’t imagine how this pandemic would have been without video conferencing! It’s all good.

Go Forth and Make the Best of it!

In ending, as the pandemic rages on, we must approach it like any other challenge, with positive determination and confidence. We must not give in to the uncertainty, the anxiety, or the sense of helplessness and lack of control that we are all in no doubt experiencing individually and as a community. Let’s lean-in to the unknown, and sit with all the feels that come with that.

As parents, the time with our offspring is finite, so we should learn to give in a little, loosen up and try to enjoy them while we still can. My favorite question is: “Remember your teen years? What did you want the most from your parents? Now give that as a gift to your own children. Thank me later 🙂

At the end of the visit with my clients today, I reminded them that adolescence and teen years don’t last forever, but parenting does. So, I will ask you what I asked them as the visit drew to a close… What is the best thing that could happen to your relationship with your child from this pandemic? Write it down, and go for it!

If you are looking for a coach to help with your relationship with your child, let’s talk. http://www.calendly.com/drlulu. Al see you on the inside 😉

BB

To Bryce…

 

“…he was acting strange, talking a mile a minute, and kept asking his mom large questions about life. He wanted to know if she and his brothers would be OK in his absence.”      ~South Florida Sun-Sentinel

In my brand new Amazon bestselling book, A Teen’s Life, I discuss teen suicide to the best of my ability. One of the teens in that book is Damiko, a football player who finds himself on the wrong side of the law, after making some tough decisions to help him deal with life’s curveballs, mainly to help his family. He naturally begins to doubt himself and ends up on the suicide spectrum. This is a not too uncommon thought-process and mindset for most of us when we are feeling overwhelmed, anguished and trapped amongst other things, as life continues to deal (as it likes) with us.

I begin with Damiko’s story because it is what I am calling “real” fiction. Just this week, we saw my fiction imitate real life in none other than Bryce Gowdy, a football star on his way to the top, with a full ride to Georgia Tech. A life cut short by train tracks. A life cut short by suicide.

While reading his story in the news outside the post office a few days ago, I kept yelling “he left signs!” “He left signs!”…repeatedly, as I cried my eyes out.

Yes, that poor kid, my son, our son, left signs all over the place, but unfortunately, those around him did not know them, or did not recognize them, and thus did not act.

Several weeks ago, another Florida teen walked into another pair of train tracks to his death. (“His death contributes to the roughly two teens in Florida who take their lives each week, and is the second in about a month to do so by train”.)

While most news often connect mental illness to majority of suicides, it is unclear if our latest victim of suicide contagion (defined as the process by which the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide can result in an increase in suicidal behaviors and suicide in persons at risk, usually adolescents), had any issues with mental illness in his past (no diagnosis is stated), what we do see though, is that he suffered from severe mental anguish (aka emotional distress) and despair in his last days. (Despair is defined as a profound and existential hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness and pessimism about life and the future. Despair is a deep discouragement and loss of faith about one’s ability to find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness.)

This article is not meant to argue about mental illness, and its contribution to suicide, it is, however, meant to showcase the fact that most suicide victims DO suffer severe mental anguish with severe reactive depression (aka situational depression) following significant life’s trauma, which in Bryce’s case was extreme poverty and homelessness. These factors confounded the natural anxiety he was already experiencing about leaving his suffering family and going off to college (college jitters), and the helplessness he felt about his inability to “save his family”.

If you are reading this, then you would agree that it was all a bit much for anyone, let alone a young adolescent.

So why does anyone kill themselves?

Image result for bryce gowdy

Why did a young gifted and talented athlete do this? The truth is that ultimately, we may never know his real reasons. However, a psychological postmortem would definitely bring in all the above factors and maybe even unearth more.

What role does resiliency (or the lack thereof) play in suicides? Are suicide victims truly weak? Are they truly “quitters”? Like a friend mentioned on a Facebook comment recently. Is it truly easy to end one’s life?

As one who has struggled in my past with suicidal ideations (SI), I know just how hard, overwhelming and lonely that street is. I know that the world looks at you with tinted lenses when you mention that “S” word. I know all the stigma, shame and silence that accompany it. I know no one wants to talk about it. Ironically though, talking about it is just what this doctor orders. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has the #silencekills and #talksaveslives hashtags for this particular reason. We MUST talk about these issues. We must call its name, SUICIDE, so as to take its sting and strength away, or at least diminish them.

*In teens specifically, adolescence brings unique challenges that often confound life’s experiences, so they have a tendency to succumb easier to SI.

IS PATH WARM is a mnemonic used to list the signs of suicidal behavior, but, I am quick to state that in youth like in our young teen, Bryce, signs might not be as organized or as obvious. Simply acting differently from the norm; becoming more agitated, giving away their stuff, asking and verbalizing about death, losing sleep, becoming more reckless, buying a gun, writing a suicide note, becoming suddenly happier, calmer, or simply saying goodbye, etc, could be signs of suicidal behavior. We as parents and as adults around them must be vigilant. The list below is of factors that lead to suicidality in youth, an excerpt from A Teen’s Life.

● A history of bullying ● Relationship issues like breakups ● Previous suicide attempt* ● LGBTQ+ sexual orientation ● Access to lethal weapons in the home ● Behavior problems like ADHD/ADD ● Poverty ● Socioeconomic/sociocultural oppression ● Institutional racism ● Lack of access to treatment and support for mental illness ● Substance Abuse ● Microaggressions like police brutality and racial profiling ● Social Media ● Lack of Support at home and at school ● Suicide in peers and in the community (suicide contagion) *A prior suicide attempt is the strongest risk factor for a suicide death*

Reading the article, it was quite obvious that he was faced with what appeared to be “unsurmountable” life’s challenges to him. If he had only waited a few more days. If he hadn’t had that train track beckoning. If he only knew the future…if, if, if. But, he had no way of seeing the future, he had no way of knowing the outpouring of love from the world to his family following his ultimate sacrifice. He had no way of knowing how much I cried when I read his story. He had no way of knowing that much like his mother, I also have three sons, and I am a Black woman in America, and I care. For him, at that moment, he felt he had used up all his options, and death was the only choice he had…and then there was a means: a train, and a history of a recent teen death by another train.

A brave child who carried the weight of his family’s troubles on his young shoulders. A brave soul who wanted the best for his family. A boy, a teen who actually reached out, but not quite far enough to save him. A young man seeking answers, but finding death in its stead. We preach reach out all the time, the question then becomes, “what if folks reach out and no one responds?”

Apparent unsurmountable life’s challenges, feelings of entrapment, overwhelmedness, helplessness, and hopelessness…these are the ingredients for suicide.

RIP Bryce, you fought the good fight.

Image result for bryce gowdy"

“Parents, please, know the signs of suicidal behavior. Our kids DO leave signs”

~ Dr. Lulu®

 

 

BB