By Roberta Eisen, Divorce Mediator and Coach
As an educational psychologist and a survivor of family suicide on two different occasions in my own lifetime, I find myself thinking a lot about suicide prevention both personally and professionally as we face these uncertain times – especially with the pandemic exacerbating mental health in more dire ways, including the impact on suicide rates.
According to the NIMH, suicides claimed the lives of 534 people aged 10 to 14 and 5,954 people aged 15 to 24 in 2019. If these numbers for 2019 also reflect trends for 2020, then suicides among children and young people would be higher than deaths from COVID-19.
Furthermore, preliminary data suggest that the trend in suicides among children and young adults increased in 2020. A study carried out in Texas by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found an increase in the rate of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for people aged 11 to 21 in the first few months of the pandemic, in comparison to the same months of 2019.
During my 30-year career, I have had the privilege of working closely with families in both private practice and family courts. During this time, my area of expertise has become helping families in high-conflict situations negotiate their own pathways. Now more than ever, it is crucial to understand the resources available to families as they navigate change in high-conflict surroundings amid a backdrop of an uncertain time.
Child Suicide After Divorce
What’s it like for kids when their family begins to fight about them in court? When a familial war begins, the children, unfortunately, become the weapons. These innocent children are at a high risk to develop anxiety, depression, addiction, a low enthusiasm for learning, promiscuity, poor overall adjustment, and suicide. I have watched families fracture before my eyes in a courtroom while a parent gives life to irrevocable words that become public record. The family space becomes flooded with a range of emotions – hatred, revenge, and anger now permeate the air children breathe and mold their lifelong development. After years of experience in the field, I have observed that it is not the divorce itself that harms families, but rather how parents navigate the transition of their divorce in the family. Your children’s outcome is directly correlated to the parents’ working relationship – for better or for worse.
In the United States, the suicide rate is nearly three times greater than the homicide rate. It is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 and fourth for people ages 35-44. The rate is more than twice as high for divorced or separated people than for married individuals.
According to a report by the CDC, “Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24%. and 31%, respectively.”
Poor mental health outcomes from stressful environments are increasing and families need to know where to turn to gain the tools necessary to guide their children safely through family transitions.
We know now that it can sometimes be better for parents to parent apart than together. Divorce is no longer considered a failure in our culture; it can be the greatest success for the children if handled well by the parents. When an adult relationship runs the risk of destroying a parent-child relationship forever, no one wins.
Many years ago, I asked an eight-year-old girl whose parents continued to fight in Pittsburgh Family Court what it was like implementing the parenting schedule the court had ordered several months ago between her parents. She thought for a few seconds and then replied, “It feels like I’m always walking on hot coals.” She lived in fear that something might happen during the transfer; her world felt scary, unsafe, and confusing. Her family space had become forever polluted – an all-too-familiar war zone.
The Silent Approach to Divorce: Easier for Parents, Potentially Deadly for Children
Parents who emulate the silent approach want to believe they are protecting their children from verbal conflicts once a divorce transition has begun. Sometimes enemies are better off when they don’t speak, but in families, it works differently. Parents must learn to speak to each other in a different way; a mature and business-like approach is always the best for the children.
Divorce can become a stressful transition for everyone involved. While protecting the children from hearing negative things about the other parent some of the time is important, 75% of our communication is nonverbal. The silent approach may be easier for the adults but can become a dangerous and deadly weapon for the children. Plus, children are smarter than we think, and they often pick up our nonverbal cues.
Prevent Child Suicide After Divorce: 3 Tips
During a war between parents, the battle of power and control takes precedence over everything else. But, wait a minute: isn’t this all about the children and the family? And isn’t the family the foundation from which children grow and develop? What happens to children when their foundation becomes unstable and battle-hardened?
Children often feel like their world has become shattered and their childhood is not as important as which parent wins the battle. Sometimes desperate children yearn for relief from the ongoing pain of their parents’ divorce. That is understandable, but suicide is never the answer. During this difficult time, here are three things parents can do to prioritize children’s mental health and safety as the family restructures.
1) Become well-informed.
As indicated above, the U.S. suicide rate is the second-highest cause of death for people ages 10-24 years old. Divorce is the second-most difficult transition for adults and children (second only to the actual death of a loved one), and divorcing families present an increased risk of suicide. Parents must pay special attention to any changes in a child’s behavior that become persistent or unusual. Check in with a mental health specialist and provide mental health support for your children during a divorce.
If teen suicide has occurred in your community, your children are at an even greater level of risk. Teens seek to fit in and belong with their peers; suicide can become contagious. I’m not quite sure that many teens in this desperate state of mind think about the finality of it all. Instead, they long for relief from their intense internal pain. Keep a pulse on your children’s mental health; look out for early warning signs and risk factors of suicidal ideation.
2) Rethink your approach.
Manage your divorce like an adult and work to re-organize your family with compassion and dignity. This business-like approach will benefit you and your children. Separate what you feel about the other parent from the love you feel for your child. In the workplace, it is not unusual for individuals to work with someone they don’t like. Manage your new family structure in a similar way – productively, and with respect.
3) Talk to your children about mental health awareness and prevention.
Create goals that help you navigate these changes in a kind and compassionate way for everyone involved. Seek the help of a divorce mediator or parent coordinator to facilitate challenging topics and work together for the ultimate benefit of the children.
Divorce often feels like the end of everything, but with the help of education, parent coaching, child and family counseling, it can be a new beginning for everyone.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Roberta Eisen, M.Ed., LPC, NCC, is a master practitioner in coaching, mediation, counseling, and consulting services for families. Over the past three decades, her expertise has assisted parents and children through the transitions of divorce and beyond. She is an Advanced Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, a member of the Association of Family Conciliation and Courts (AFCC), and a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. www.eisenblackstonegroup.com