The recent suicide of Sulli, a well-known 25-year-old K-pop star, shook the world of Korean pop culture. The sad news also highlights the stressful lifestyles of K-pop idols, who have little to no privacy and often have to deal with malicious comments from anonymous internet users.
Closer to home, suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore has stated that suicide remains the leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 29 in Singapore.
Considering that suicide is on an upward trend, it is imperative that we take collective action to boost children’s mental health and protect our young against such issues.
But how do we go about building that protective buffer among our young?
The protective effects of a supportive family
Mental illness is a complex issue. It could develop due to the presence of a combination of influences, such as genetics, childhood experiences, personality, and the presence of other disorders and illnesses.
However, it is worth noting that the presence of positive life experiences and other intervening factors can help to protect against mental disorders.
According to a recent study by a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, kids who have more supportive experiences with family, friends, and people in their school and community may be less likely to have psychological or relationship troubles in adulthood.
The study surveyed 6,118 adults about how often in childhood they felt able to talk to family and friends about feelings; felt their family stood by them during difficult times; enjoyed participating in community traditions; felt a sense of belonging in high school; felt supported by friends; had at least two nonparent adults who took an interest in them; and felt safe and protected by an adult in their home.
Adults who reported six to seven of these positive childhood experiences were 72% less likely to have depression than adults who reported no more than two positive childhood experiences.
The interesting thing is that these associations remained even when respondents reported multiple adverse childhood experiences.
This goes to show that we cannot underestimate the protective effects of positive experiences in childhood, and the role that family members and friends play in children’s lives.
Kids who have more supportive experiences with family, friends, and people in their school and community may be less likely to have psychological or relationship troubles in adulthood.
Understanding the transitional teen years
The road from childhood to adolescence to teenagehood is a multifaceted process of development that involves many physical, mental and emotional changes.
During the early teenage years, youths are discovering and negotiating their identities in a fast-paced and complex environment. Add to this the complexities of navigating social media and the result can be a potent mix.
As such, we need to be aware of the common traits, emotions, and pitfalls that may surface during these years, and adjust our parenting styles accordingly.
Ideally, we should also initiate and make space for heart-to-heart conversations with our kids when they are young, even when they’re still in preschool, and encourage them to share their feelings, as well as any struggles they may be facing at school or with friends.
During such talks, we can help them identify their emotions, and also talk about the ways that we can deal with difficult emotions, such as sadness, rejection, loneliness, and envy. We can also assure them that it is normal to feel down when they encounter setbacks or disappointments.
We should also be mindful to suspend our judgments as well as refrain from sharing advice immediately. Rather, follow-up with coaching or advice when our children are calm and more open to receive feedback from us.
Put yourself in their shoes. Would you open up to someone who might judge or scold you?
If we make such conversations a regular part of our family life from a young age, it may help to keep these communication lines open even throughout adolescence.
During such talks, we can help them identify their emotions, and also talk about the ways that we can deal with difficult emotions.
However, there may be times when they are not ready to talk or simply unable to articulate their feelings. During such moments, it may be helpful to give them some space, or to allow them to give scaled answers to specific statements.
For example, if you say “This situation is too difficult for you to handle by yourself,” they could respond on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being “strongly agree” and 5 being “strongly disagree”.
By assuring them that we’ll always be here if they need a listening ear, and by ensuring we don’t make light of their worries and concerns, we earn the right to speak into their lives – in those moments that count.
Anchor them with significant relationships
As parents, we cannot shield our children from every adversity or challenge, but we can better equip them to handle life’s curveballs.
Apart from becoming good listeners, we can also assure them that their self-worth does not come from external factors such as grades, material possessions and personal achievements.
Of course, this has to go beyond mere talk; we need to believe this ourselves too and not be seen to chase after such external validation, or to treat our children’s accolades as trophies.
Humans are wired to connect. Building a strong and connected relationship with our kids today will empower them as they navigate the uncertainties of the modern world. When they meet with challenges, they know that they’ll always have us as a safe harbour to turn to.
And let’s not just stop at ourselves. We can also help our kids forge positive and strong relationships with other adult mentors and role models who are caring and trustworthy.
You never know when these significant adults and mentors will be a lifeline for your child when the going gets tough.
As the Principal Counsellor at Focus on the Family Singapore, Theresa Pong is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families deal constructively with challenges. She also works extensively with children and youth, equipping them with skills to cope with stress and trauma.
If you would like to speak with a counsellor, please click here to get in touch.