Monday Musings…Turning Childhood Suicidal Behaviour Inside Out
Well, my head space is still spinning from the statistics I talked about last week. How can a child as young as five wish that they no longer existed? We’ll only be able to figure it out if we can unpackage what children are thinking, and how that impacts their emotions and subsequent behaviours.
Four years ago, Disney/Pixar came out with a cleverly constructed film called “Inside Out” (spoiler alert ahead!). This artful animation gave the viewers a front row seat inside the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley. For all intents and purposes, Riley was an ‘every girl’, relatable on so many levels to so many children. She was a happy-go-lucky child for the most part until she was faced with a major change in her young life – her family was moving to a new city. All that was familiar, all her comforts, her friends, and her memories were going to be left behind. It’s in her transition phase from familiarity to foreign territory that we understand how simple and yet complex her emotions are, and just how difficult it is for children to manage them.
As we journey into Riley’s head space, we watch as she processes this milestone move from Minnesota to California. She tries really hard to accept and even like her new environment, but the emotions of fear, anger, disgust, and sadness overpower her. She convinces herself that the only option is to run away to escape the pain of her present circumstances. She feels helpless to change and all that had previously brought her joy, slowly fades away from her memory. Her mind tells her that she needs an exit strategy. And it’s looking for an exit sign on the road map of life that can lad a person off the highway and down the slippery slope towards suicide.
So, let’s go a little deeper into how children think, and explore the Wonderful World of Disney’s “Take One” on childhood mental health:
What you think about, how you process the events and people around us, is where mental health starts. When you feel like you don’t have control or you don’t have a choice (like Riley with the move) your thoughts become engulfed with the fuel called ‘emotion’. And those thoughts are going to burn in your brain.
There are five primal emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. (And this is psychologically accurate.) But of those five, only one, it could be argued, is really positive – that’s joy. That should wake you up to just how hard it is to stay upbeat, especially when life is crumbling around you. As Sadness states in the movie: “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”
So, it’s entirely possible that everyone has a tendency towards negative emotional reactions, especially when it involves change. We see this in infants when they ‘make strange’, when children start elementary or high school, when parents split up, when kids are placed on a new team, when their room has to be shared with another sibling, and the list goes on. Think about it – your default switch is often negative when things do not go according to plan. If you struggle as an adult, put yourself in size 2 sneakers.
Most people, including children, don’t let other people know what is going on in their heads. There is whole secret thought world that people keep to themselves, largely because they are afraid what people will think of them. Many children don’t want to disappoint their parents, or they want to please their friends to keep their friends, and so they hold it all inside.
When children do react emotionally, adults quickly tell them to be quiet and then distract them with a treat or, if it persists, separate them from the perceived source of distress for a time out or send them to their rooms to ‘think about it”. They don’t really get a chance to talk about what is bothering them.
We make a lot of assumptions as adults that children are too young to be affected by change. We convince ourselves and try to convince them that that they will ‘get over it’, that they are not aware of what is really going on, that their attention span is so short that they are easily distracted and more interested in their toys and games and the latest episode on the Kids version of Netflix. But clearly, statistics are showing that we are not picking up the signals they are sending until we are racing to the ER in panic mode.
So, what can be done to protect children?
Recognize that all change, big and small, takes a toll on a child. Try and think like a 5-year-old. Being excluded, being told they are fat or ugly, being seen as different, not having their friend in their class...there are lots of issues and changes children have to contend with. Think about what impact their perceived changes and challenges have on how they see their world?
Discuss the change openly with the child and listen intently to their reaction. The younger the child the more concrete the thinking, meaning there will be little processing time so what they say is what they think and feel. If they say: “I want to die” take them at their word. Don’t minimize it, dismiss it, or tell them it won’t be so bad, or that they will get over it, or the dreaded “I’ve been through much worse and I turned out ok, “line. The older the child, probe a little deeper to move past their parent-pleasing response to the true heart of the matter. Don’t assume that ‘fine’ is fine if their body language or behaviour indicates otherwise.
Engage them in the decision-making process. Children really do have very little control over situations when they are young, and for good reason, as parents try to instil discipline and good behaviour. But the more that you encourage a child to have their say, the better. Giving them a voice in family matters really helps. You will notice a difference in their reactions. It also fosters good communication and conflict resolution skills.
Help them understand their emotions. Young children are reactive and that is actually a good thing. It is an immediate response to a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus. But instead of quieting them right away, discuss what precipitated the reaction, why did it make them feel that way, what outcome do they want? You don’t want them to shut off their emotion. You want them to be mindful of what triggers those responses, how they can take longer to process those triggers, and then be in a frame of mind to choose from a multitude of options to respond that will make them feel more in control. Sometimes they need to scream, rant, or cry. The goal is to restore the emotion back to a calmer state.
Have intentional conversations on a regular basis. Don’t wait until the crisis hits. Nothing can replace the face to face contact and time spent listening to a child daily. I’ve always believed that communication should be a constant stabilizing force from birth, and that you work hard to maintain it all the way through adulthood. Conversation should be natural and not forced. Children need to know that they can come and talk to you about anything, especially the things you may have a hard time with. It’s only through communicating on the outside, that we really can figure out what is going on inside.
If we are ever to hold back this looming tsunami of childhood mental health issues, we need more than sandbags to block the flow. That’s an outside solution that relies on government funding and increase in services. We all know that solution will be a long time coming and those stats are going to keep climbing. So, it has to begin on the inside, inside our own homes, schools, and childcare programs. Think about the children and grandchildren in your own lives. Understand how they think and the role of emotion. Then try this week to implement some of the suggestions above. The change begins with us – it is our responsibility.
One of the songs from the soundtrack of the “Inside Out” movie is: “Spread My Wings” by Kathryn Ostenberg. It IS possible to help children hold their heads up high, but they are going to need our help. Give it a listen.