I volunteer for a suicide helpline some hours of the week. My 14-year-old daughter has suddenly begun to resent this, telling me it depresses her to hear me talk to these people. She ends up thinking about the subject of suicide many times in the day. If I receive the calls in my room and shut the door, she sometimes says angrily that these people are just “attention-seekers”. The first time she said this, I admonished her, explaining the desperate state such people found themselves in and telling her to be more empathetic. However, I am confused. Why is it affecting her so much? Should I give it up? Can I somehow get her to see the value of the work I am doing?
I would urge you not to jump to the conclusion that your daughter is being selfish and unsympathetic by expressing her angst and irritation.
While your feeling that she must empathize is understandable, perhaps this is not the time to get a troubled 14-year-old to take a “world view” on the issue of suicide. Your daughter is not able to process this sobering and, yes, depressing subject at the moment. It is more important right now that you be there for her in a non-intellectual way about this matter. Frankly, it is not a good time to lecture her about “those more unfortunate than us”. You will not make any real impact by taking this tack and will certainly alienate her further.
You need to possibly give her more of your own time—some of her resentment probably comes from wanting more of your emotional time. As for your helpline work/ volunteering, it would be much better to take your conversation out of her earshot, and ideally do it when your daughter is not home or when you can be at another location.
No one can be empathetic about something they fear, don’t understand or resent. That is why this is not the right time to sensitize her to the subject and circumstances of suicide. Young people have to be encouraged to generally grow in empathy on less serious fronts, so that later they could be expected to feel empathetic on big issues. Once she has stopped feeling so overwrought, you could perhaps introduce her to different ways of being empathetic about the world around her. Do keep in mind that an adolescent is preoccupied with herself and her peer group, and there is only so much empathy or sympathy that she can have for something so removed from her life. Since this cause is so important to you, you could continue with it and make no secret about doing that, but it’s important that you keep it in the background when it comes to your interaction with your daughter.
Fear factor: Don’t expect young people to be empathetic about something they are scared of.
It is important not to expect full understanding and total cooperation from children about their parents’ hobbies, pursuits or volunteering activities. Some resentment or insensitivity is expected, and it is best not to badger them into being supportive of causes that are essentially close only to your heart. It’s best to just have them subconsciously and non-verbally pick up on and then appreciate the good causes that you work for at their own pace.
With news reports of children aged 9 and 10 attempting suicide, many parents are worried about what is going on in children’s minds and whether they too will toy with drastic measures if unhappy about something. How do we prevent our children from going into depression about minor matters and prepare them to face the bigger challenges of life?
While some of these cases possibly come from genetic factors and/or families and situations where there are extreme but hidden reasons for such young children to go into deep depression, your concern is understandable. How do we know a child is depressed or heading towards depression? We are talking here not of momentary sadness or being out-of-sorts, but depression.
First, depressed children do not look like depressed adults—rather than being sad and withdrawn, they are often irritable. In fact, at times, it can easily be confused with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some depressed children are also prone to displaying elated moods, grandiose thoughts and daredevil acts, which can resemble hyperactivity.
There are, of course, genetic factors at play too, and all depressed children don’t necessarily come from dysfunctional homes. But what are the factors that could ensure a positive atmosphere at home and are reasonably within the control of family members? Festering and ugly family relationships should not be discussed and acted upon in front of children.
• Money worries and strategies need not be discussed and agonized over around children. Giving a realistic idea of disposable income and liabilities to older children is a good idea, but constant talk of money, earning it, spending it, comparing other families’ living standards, etc., is something that begins to weigh down on even young children.
• Marital discord, even overt, is an important hidden factor that many children react to with depression. It is essential that both parents be reasonably contented with themselves and with each other. Many families pour love and affection on their children, but the equation between the parents is joyless, even hostile. This should be worked upon.
• Talk of hopelessness, public apathy, corruption, scams, murders, “how the good and hard-working get nowhere and the crooks always win”, have become the subject matter of dinner-time conversation. Surely, there are many better things to talk about with our children.
• Regular food and sleeping habits as well as adequate light, fresh air and exercise are other factors that steady a child—these are obvious and much-talked about lifestyle issues, but not followed a lot in many families.
• Family setbacks—whether it is a child’s bad grades, or something like a parent losing a job or money, or illness—should be seen and projected to children as isolated incidents that need remedying, not as a sign of having continuous bad luck, or as divine punishment, and other such overwhelming interpretations.
• Teaching and encouraging our children to freely give of themselves in loving acts as well as to receive love with grace and gratitude on a daily basis, and not only on birthdays and festivals, is another key to stability and a feeling of security. It is also some kind of insurance against feelings of isolation and alienation.
Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org