Matthew and his parents entered my office and sat down on my couch.
Matthew folded his arms and stared out my window. His parents both took a deep sigh as they looked at each other. Feeling the tension in the room, I said, “Thank you for coming in today. You mentioned on the phone that you were concerned about Matthew and the recently discovered self-injury. How can I be of help?”
Matthew’s mom quickly spoke up: “This is so out of character for Matthew. We just want to make sure he’s OK, but we have no idea what to do.”
Unfortunately, this has become an all-too-common conversation for my staff and me. The pandemic has forced us into isolation and, as a result, our teenagers are faced with new challenges, and we’ve seen, in turn, an increase in both suicidal ideation and self-injury.
Let’s talk briefly about how loneliness and isolation can contribute to both.
(PLEASE NOTE: Loneliness and isolation can be potential contributors to suicide and self-injury, but they are not direct causes. The desire to self-injure and the thoughts associated with suicide are much more complex. For further reading on this, read my free e-book Help! My Teen is Self-Injuring: A Crisis Manual for Parents at drmayfield.com).
As I unpack in The Path out of Loneliness, loneliness is defined as “The state of being unseen or unnoticed relationally, mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. It can be driven by a lack of purpose or meaning, relationship, and/or identity and is marked by a deep sense of hopelessness.”
We are designed and created for connection. Being in relational reciprocity allows us to develop a healthy symbiotic relationship with others.
When thoughts of loneliness enter, the relational connection has the potential to sever and, as a result, we begin to feel isolated and alone. Isolation can then be a direct link to negative self-talk and thoughts.
If/when our relational connection is severed, the failure of our emotional regulatory system is close behind. Why? We need each other to regulate.
Our brain does not fully function (neither emotionally nor cognitively) unless it is in a safe, trusting relationship with someone else. Therefore, when our relationships/connections are compromised, the regulatory functions of our emotions will be as well.
When connection is lost and our emotions are dysregulated, we begin to consciously or unconsciously question who or whose we are. Satan’s whisper—“You are worthless”—becomes a scream: “you are not loved!”
We lose sight of the promises of God and get lost in the sea of isolation.
When our identity is compromised, our purpose gets lost.
Purpose flows out of identity. Purpose is what helps us get out of bed in the morning. Without it, a narrative of “Who cares?” develops.
Hope is essential for life. Without hope all seems lost. Loneliness is forgetful and does not remember what hope is or where it was placed, and all feels lost in that moment.
NOTE: When hope is lost, it is significantly important that you consult with a mental health professional. This is where suicide can be most prevalent.
“So how do we help Matthew regain some of these components in his life?” Matthew’s dad asked.
“Good question!” I answered. “You will need to be purposeful and intentional in your relationship with Matthew.”
Here are several action items that every parent can take:
This is not an extensive list, nor is it a prescription, but it is a start. Slow down, pay attention, lean in, and engage your teenager at their level. You won’t be disappointed.
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