SINGAPORE: A child who acts up could be showing signs of delinquency - or of suicidal depression. So, are parents right to respond to misbehaviour with “tough love”?
Posed this quandary, Dr Ong Lue Ping, the Institute of Mental Health’s principal clinical psychologist, said: “Tough love is still love … A lot of times we find that it’s not really the method that makes a difference. It’s really the relationship.
“If the relationship is strong, even if it’s tough love, the child may see it as my parents having concern for me. But if the relationship is negative (from the) start ... then the tough love may have a negative impact.”
This question was raised at a Talking Point forum held at *SCAPE on Monday (Oct 24), just days after the State Coroner ruled on the suicide of an 11-year-old boy who had killed himself in May after failing his exams. The court heard that the boy’s mother would cane him “lightly” on his palm whenever he scored less than 70 marks in exams.
The case was fresh on the minds of the participants during the candid and sometimes poignant discussion about teen suicide with the panellists - who included Dr Ong, celebrity Irene Ang and Mr Chow Yen-Lu, a father who lost his son to suicide.
The recording of the forum aired in a special episode on Thursday on Mediacorp's Channel 5. (Catch the extended 50-minute version here on Toggle.)
Last year, Singapore recorded its most number of teen suicides in 15 years - 27 teenagers (aged 10 to 19) killed themselves in 2015, up from 13 in 2014 and 19 in 2009.
According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds globally.
Panellist Mr Chow talked about picking up the pieces after his son, who had suffered from manic depression since the age of 18, killed himself when he was 26.
“One of the first things that we did was not to blame ourselves or each other. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today … we would have gone down the other path. Number two, is to accept what’s happened.
“Three, is to find meaning in what’s happened and to do something about it,” said Mr Chow, who went on to co-found Over-The-Rainbow, a support group to help youths deal with stress and mental health issues.
WATCH: How one father picked up the pieces
LISTEN, REALLY LISTEN TO YOUR TEEN
Dr Ong, who has spent 13 years counselling children and teens, emphasised how important it was for parents to listen without judgement.
“(Teenagers) tell me that when they feel like talking to their parents, they want their parents to listen to them empathetically at first, and not jump in too quickly with solutions or with judgements. Let them know … (that you) would be there to help them to solve the problem.
“They also appreciate if their parents can validate and not trivialise their feelings. Sometimes parents say, ‘oh this is just some friendship, you can always find new friends’. But for them, it is really a big thing,” said Dr Ong.
Mr Chow echoed this: “We need to talk less and listen more. All of us. And when we listen, (we should do so) not just with our ears, but with our heart.”
WANTED: COPING SKILLS
While 58 per cent of suicides in Singapore are associated with mental illness, a local study has found two other risk factors at play a lot of the time, Dr Ong noted. These are social factors - such as relationship problems and school stress - as well as psychological factors.
“What we know is that individuals who tend to be lonely, proud, secretive, and have a low self-esteem with a tendency to worry unnecessarily and with poor problem-solving skills, are at a higher risk of suicide,” he said.
He added that this is why we need to “go back to basics” and teach our teenagers certain life-skills - namely social, problem-solving, coping and adjusting skills.
Ms Ang, the CEO of Fly Entertainment, had tried to take her own life three times - the first attempt was when she was just 15, as she recounted in one recent interview.
“What stopped me was really myself,” she told the forum. “What I took away from the three failed attempts was, there’s so much courage needed to kill myself, why don’t I take that courage and try to live and solve my problem? What’s the worst can happen, I die right? But before I die, let me go and try.”
On what she does when she feels the symptoms of depression setting in, she shared: “I take a holiday, I pick up a sport - recently at the ripe old age of 48, I started playing tennis; I play three hours a week now.”
Hear more about the issue of suicide from those who survived it, on next week’s episode of On The Red Dot on Friday, Nov 4, at 9.30pm on Mediacorp's Channel 5.
WATCH: The Talking Point forum discussion here on Toggle