Raising a Child Who Wants to Stay Alive

By Pamela Cantor, PhD
January 2009 (updated)

Pam Cantor is a psychologist, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School , and a national expert in the subject of adolescent suicide. In her syndicated newspaper column, Dr. Cantor responds to parent concerns such as the request below from a mother who identified herself as "In Need of Knowledge." Dr. Cantor's reply follows, with a closing note by Dr. Howard S. King.

"Five thousand two hundred adolescents commit suicide each year in the U.S. ! What can I do to raise "a suicide-free kid"? I know that parents are not always to blame – that drugs, alcohol, peers and genetics all play an important role. But there must be some advice you can give to help me do the best job for my children."

Dear In Need:

In order to regard life as worthwhile, kids have to feel that they are worthwhile. A child acquires self-esteem first from his or her family, and only later from teachers and friends.

While parents are not necessarily responsible for their child's depression or unhappiness, h ere are 10 things families can do to help prevent problems:

1) Treat your child with respect and kindness

Don't put him down when you speak to him. Just because he's smaller or younger doesn't mean he is less worthwhile.

2) Discipline without physical punishment

Remember, if you use physical punishment you are teaching that "might makes right" – because you are bigger, you can inflict pain. You wouldn't want your child to treat other children that way. Discipline is not the same as punishment. Discipline provides structure and firm guidelines. It teaches good behavior by example, not by punitive or painful action.

3) Don't belittle your child

She isn't expected to be as competent as you. Don't take over because you can do it better or faster – instead teach her how to be competent.

4) Treat others around you with respect

If you treat people with kindness, your children will be likely to do the same. If you use foul language or disparaging remarks, your children are likely to imitate what they hear.

5) Avoid violence in your home

Don't hit your pets, your spouse or your children. Monitor the amount of violent television programs or movies your kids watch. There is a direct relationship between the violence kids watch on TV and how aggressive or violent their behaviors are.

6) Teach your child that there are solutions to problems

Life is not always happy, although as parents we would like to make it that way. We need to let our kids know that nothing is perfect. We need to show them that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I don't mean that they run away, or drink or drug away a problem but, instead, they can mobilize their forces to do what they can to make things better. If a child sees his father pack a bag and leave every time he fights with his wife, the child will learn that that is the way to handle an argument.

7) Teach your teen how to cope with seemingly insurmountable problems

Teach your adolescent that what may seem like an insurmountable problem at the time – whether it is not getting into the college she wanted, not getting the right date for the prom or not passing a driver's test – is not without some resolution. Children and adolescents don't have the experience to know that everything – good and bad – eventually changes.

8) Value your child

Let your child know how much value you place on his survival, and his needs. Talk to him, not at him. Listen to him; don't talk about yourself. His concerns may seem trivial to you, but they're critical to him. I worry that I am giving my children the wrong impression about what's important when I say, "I'll talk to you after I've finished the laundry," instead of saying, "I'll finish the laundry after I've talked to you."

9) Support your children's efforts

Don't expect to solve your children's problems. Just be there to listen. They need to do the solving. You need to support their efforts.

10) Help them discover who they want to be

Try not to pressure your children into being whom you want them to be rather than who they want to become. Many kids feel so much pressure to succeed that that they feel loved only for their ability to play the piano or their ability to get into the right school. Avoid making your child fill a role whose primary purpose is for your own gratification. Kids can go through so many years denying who they are, and what they feel, in order to please their parents, that they forget who they are and cannot tell what they feel. They go through life almost feeling as if they were dead. From there, it can be a very short bridge to crossing over into actual death.

The prededing list seems simple and self-evident, and few parents would disagree with these recommendations. However, it is hard to convey to a child something you may not have experienced in your own growing-up. If you have difficulty following through with any of these suggestions, perhaps because you didn't have parent who modeled these behaviors, consider talking it over with someone -- your spouse, a friend, a counselor, or your pediatrician. In the course of sharing those memories, you may, over time, be able to incorporate Dr. Cantor's insights into your own way of thinking about what it means to be a parent.

This is a serious article, about a serious subject. But there may be an up-beat message here, after all. That message may come about when we reflect about where the pressure we apply to our children derives from.

Dr. Cantor's observation about how we pressure our children to achieve something we, ourselves, hadn't been able to achieve, unfortunately rings true – for people we've known personally as well as families with whom we've worked.

We may be just passing on to them what we ourselves believed and learned from our own families in our earlier days. If we stop to think about it, our children may be teaching us about how we came to be. And that can be a real discovery. – Dr. King

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I would like to thank the following for their generous support, without whom this web site and training program would not exist: The Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation, The Alden Trust, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, Project INTERFACE (Newton Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Education), the Locke Educational Fund at Newton- Wellesley Hospital, Aetna Health Plan, the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center,  and the families of my medical practice. 

I hope you find this site useful and encourage any comments.

- Dr. Howard King, M.D.