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Guest Post: Engaging Emotionally with their Children is Each Father’s Challenge

Posted by Fatherhood Admin

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Nov 22, 2010
This is a guest post from Denise Pazur, executive director for The PDV Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing suicide prevention. You can learn more at http://www.pdvfoundation.org.

It could well be the most frightening thing a parent can face—death of a child by suicide.

Other sudden, unintentional deaths by murder or automobile fatality are horrific. Yet there’s something incomprehensible about a son or daughter deliberately ending the life we as parents have given them. In this way, suicide stands apart from perhaps all other deaths.

Rates of suicide for American youths have tripled since the 1950s, and this should serve as a call to action for parents nationwide, especially fathers. The message is clear and resounding: suicide is the most preventable form of death there is, according to 16th U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. Our children are dying by their own hand not because they want to die, but because they can no longer endure the “psychache” of living. This mental anguish is most often an outcome of mental illness, not bad or selfish behavior.

My own son took his life a decade ago, when he was just 18 and had entered his senior year of high school. It is hard for me to think of him as someone with mental illness. But depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are indeed illnesses of the mind and the emotions. When left unrecognized, untreated or undertreated, they can be lethal—just as untreated diabetes or cancer can kill.

Why is it vital to strengthen the engagement of fathers with their children who may have mental illness? Because when a child is abnormally anxious, fearful, angry, self-loathing or disengaged from life, fathers may not recognize these as symptoms of a biologically based brain illness. They may encourage their children, especially their sons, to buck up under pressure.

“Boys don’t cry” are among our parental narratives, words we feel may strengthen our children to endure future trial and trauma. But there are unintended consequences for not recognizing and addressing mental illness in our children.

This avoidance of the reality of our children’s mental health may place them at grave risk for behaviors that can lead to self-inflicted death. What can seem at first as “normal” adolescent outbursts may in reality be cries for help. I remember my son telling me, “Mom, I know what I’m doing.” I remember his anger and rebellion against our rules as he neared his 18th birthday. I also recall thinking these were age appropriate for the most part, and would end when he graduated from high school and started life on his own. That day never came.

The call to action to fathers is compelling: fathers need to engage deeply in the emotional well-being of their children if our nation is to do better at reducing youth suicide. It is their role as parent and provider to safeguard their children’s health—including mental health.

As long as emotional nurturing of children is mom-centric, each child does not benefit from a father’s acknowledgment that admitting emotional struggle shows honesty. That seeking help shows strength. And that accepting help from others may indeed save a life.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of National Fatherhood Initiative.

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