Connecting to Prevent Youth Suicide

Isolation is a risk factor for teen suicide. An expert shares tips for helping your kids build meaningful connections with others.

Human beings are hardwired to connect with others — and meaningful connections don’t just feel good. They can actually help protect against youth suicide. Social isolation, loss of relationships and a sense of hopelessness are significant risk factors for suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kids aren’t immune to these feelings. A national survey reports that more than 4 in 10 high school students feel persistently sad or hopeless, and 1 in 5 say they’ve thought about suicide.

“When we work to emotionally connect to our youth, it may make it less likely that they believe they are alone in their pain,” explains Nancy Buyle, School Safety/Student Assistant Consultant with Macomb Intermediate School District. “By reaching out to connect on an emotional level, it shows the youth that they matter, thereby making it less likely they consider suicide.”

Here’s the rub: Parents are told that developmentally, teens need plenty of space, so how do we know when a need for privacy becomes social isolation? It can be a difficult balance, says Buyle. “I would suggest that even if your teen tells you they do not want you around — especially at school functions like concerts, plays or sporting events, tell them you are going anyway,” she says. “I have talked to many teens who express appreciation that their parents ‘never gave up on them.’” By being there, you’re in the know when things get rocky.

At home, strike a balance between time alone and family time, set expectations and let your kid know you’re available if they want to talk. “And then be sure that you do more listening than talking when they come to you,” reminds Buyle.

How to connect

Our society offers many chances for teens to plug into technology instead of plugging into people, and that’s a problem. It’s common sense that kids need to have meaningful connections, but how can parents help make this happen?

Penn State developmental psychologist Charisse Nixon researched what teens need most to thrive: acceptance, belonging, control and meaningful existence. By learning about Nixon’s research, Buyle says parents can help their kids better connect with those around them.

Nixon’s theory embraces four “gems” that build meaningful connection for kids: empathy, gratitude, forgiveness and humility. When learned and practiced, each gem counteracts the struggles many teens feel as they move through adolescence. As parents, we can help our kids grow these skills. Here’s how:

  • Empathy builds compassion and is a precursor to belonging. “Teach empathy to your children by recognizing and naming their feelings,” suggests Buyle.
  • Gratitude predicts overall happiness and builds optimism. “The research is very clear,” Buyle says. “When people who are feeling sad or depressed practice gratitude intentionally, that depression subsides, potentially for a long time. Gratitude has long-lasting effects on our mental health.”
  • Forgiveness means we acknowledge that others have behaviors and problems that may have nothing to do with us — “Hurt people hurt people,” Buyle says. “When we can let go, it frees us up,” which can be empowering.
  • Humility promotes acceptance and belonging because it allows you to focus on others, not constantly having to prove your self-worth. “When you’re humble, you have a strong self-image,” says Buyle.

Connect with eye contact

One practical way to build connection instantly, even if your child seems isolated and disconnected, is with direct eye contact. “Remember the stare-down contests we used to have in our own youth? Looking into each other’s eyes immediately diffuses that isolation,” says Buyle. It’s only when we intentionally gaze into each other’s eyes that we recognize how little we practice this skill.

“Even when I’m talking with a small child, I get down on their level and point to my eyes. I ask them to see me. If you can make eye contact first, then you can move to what you need to do. Eyes locking on each other is connection and it diffuses ill feelings we may have,” Buyle explains.

Be of service

Another simple way to build connection with others is to do good. “We are built to be of service to one another,” Buyle says, sharing research that indicates even babies will reach to pick up a dropped piece of paper to hand to a caregiver. “They want to help.”

Find service projects that your kids can do, or that you can do together. Even taking walks and picking up trash will help kids feel good about themselves and their abilities to serve others.

In crisis situations, Buyle says she talks with emotionally distressed students who don’t want to reach out for fear of being a burden, especially on friends who are also hurting. She asks them how they feel when they are able to help friends. “They say helping their friends feels wonderful, so I leave them with this: when you allow people to help you, you are actually helping them in return,” she says.

“Being of service is important to our well-being. Letting your children help someone else will foster connection and build meaningful purpose in their lives. When you feel you are needed, you are much less likely to consider suicide.”

Content brought to you by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Read more about family mental health. Then learn more at flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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