x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A house full of love and laughter can keep loneliness at bay

Our Teen Talk columnist considers the troubling statistics on teen suicides recently revealed, and the role of parents in keeping a happy home.

Your teenage years are supposed to be one of the happiest times of your life. You've got your whole future to look forward to, you begin to understand the world much better as you exit the fantastical realms of childhood, and new and exciting possibilities begin to present themselves.

You never seem to have a spare minute to yourself, what with school, homework, activities, Facebook, long stints on the telephone with friends and tangled relationships. For someone who hasn't quite grown up yet, life piles a lot on the plate of this particular age group. Sometimes, it seems, it can all prove too much. A very disturbing report was published in this paper a while ago, titled "One in six teenagers thought of suicide" by Hala Khalaf.

That's a massive number. Clearly the world needs to take notice and address the issue. On the surface, most teenagers I come into contact with on a daily basis are content, well-balanced young people who appear to be heading towards successful careers and having happy family lives as they near adulthood. There are 15 people in my class, and I shudder to think that according to the statistics, two or three of my classmates - people I know well - should have contemplated such a drastic step.

Sadly, I know this isn't simply a hypothetical situation. A couple of years ago, a friend in India had to be rushed to hospital after an overdose of over-the-counter pain killers, to the alarm of all of her family and friends. My friend was by all accounts a cheerful, funny, gorgeous young lady, popular among her friends. Although she survived and is now at university, her parents were left heart-broken.

In India, the country that some studies have cited as having the highest rates of suicide among students in the world, the problem is often the enormous amount of pressure on teenagers to succeed academically. In a nation where the difference between a 93 and 97 per cent in an exam can make or break your career, thousands of teenagers decide to do the unthinkable and end it all.

As a teenager, it can often feel like everything revolves around you - not in a stuck-up sort of way, but as if you hold the key to everyone else's peace of mind. Reasons for thoughts of suicide - bullying, failed relationships - are enough to upset anyone, but in the heat and passion of youth, some teenagers apparently can't grasp that nothing is worse than death because it's irreversible. However bleak the future seems, we're equipped, as humans, with the strength to overcome and move on. Things will eventually improve.

In the UAE, 16 per cent of 13 to15 year olds claim they have seriously considered killing themselves. Treating it as a taboo subject is certainly not the answer to combating this frightening phenomenon. According to the study, half the parents surveyed did not know how their child spent their free time. Teenagers are stereotypically difficult to approach and talk to; we won't take off our headphones to make light conversation with you if we can help it. But we do want to be listened to and understood, and parents are often the only people who can provide the sympathetic ear we need.

I think some good, old-fashioned bonding with your children can help. A friend of mine whines rather fondly about his mum making him go for "father-son" sessions every Saturday afternoon, where he goes out for lunch, or something like a round of golf, with his dad. Worried that the arrival of a new baby in the house might make him feel unloved, his mum was quick to introduce the new policy and so far, it looks like it's worked well: Jake adores his new sister, and much as he complains about his dad embarrassing him by wearing knee-length socks to the golf sessions, he enjoys Saturday afternoons. At home, we have an "open-door policy", which means that everyone doesn't simply shut themselves up in their rooms and ignore everyone else. The only TV in the house is in the living room, and if I'm on the computer, it's out in the open, not my room. This does make life difficult if I'm trying to access Facebook while refusing to accompany mum to her friend's house because "I have homework" - but that's the point.

Loneliness and dark thoughts have a much more difficult job manifesting themselves if you're surrounded by noise, laughter and people you love and who love you.