“Let your child fail” is the new anti-helicopter-parent mantra.
And now some experts even say that failure and the ability to recover may be part of what protects teenagers and college students from depression and suicide.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of kids going off to college and experiencing their first bad grade or broken up relationship … and they don’t know how to handle it,” says Stephen Gray Wallace, the author of “Reality Gap – Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex – What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling.” Wallace, a psychologist, camp administrator, and former CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions, is now a consultant and researcher on adolescent development and mental health.
Because teenagers are not allowed to fail, when they do come up against adversity and feel awful, they assume they are going to feel that way forever, he says.
And that lack of resilience may be one factor, along with others such as pressure to succeed, the impulsive teenage brain, and the false facades of social media - that contribute to teen suicide rates, he and other experts believe.
For young people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, resulting in 4,600 lost lives annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. And many more young people attempt suicide. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of U.S. public and private school students in Grades 9–12 found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, approximately 157,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries in U.S. emergency departments, according to the CDC.
Wallace bases his conclusions on survey’s by SADD and Liberty Mutual Insurance that asked teenagers about parental control and on his own conversations with kids, parents, and college officials. For example, he says, the University of Chicago athletic department complains that incoming student athletes can’t handle criticism. “If they are corrected on the athletic field, in the pool, they just fall apart,” Wallace says.
[Read the Guide to Therapeutic Programs & Services for advice and a directory of programs for teens.]
So what can parents do? Wallace’s basic advice is this: Teach our children to handle adversity and criticism and give them the tools to bounce back. That might include professional help. Some other ideas:
· Even if your child seems like the happiest person on the planet, talk about how to anticipate adversity – where it might come from, how it might feel and what to do about it. Remind kids that feeling bad is in bad situations is normal but may sometimes require professional intervention.
· Role-play situations so kids have a script, whether it’s about alcohol, sex, or “I’m feeling really lousy and I have to ask for help,” as Wallace puts it. He cites the Harvard School of Public Health in recommending role-playing for parents and teens.
· Help students headed off to school brainstorm strategies for connecting with helpful and responsible adults – even if it’s as basic as how to introduce yourself.
· Review what resources for mental health a school or program offers. Discuss how to navigate that system and what to do if, for example, the college counseling center doesn’t have any appointments for six weeks.
· Forget the stigma of talking about mental illness or suicide or the idea that this discussion is going to implant the idea of suicide in a teen’s brain. As Wallace says, it’s never too late to start the conversation.