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Impulse Control: Suicide Prevention Through a Different Lens

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Impulse control is especially difficult for young people but without this skill, teenagers are more susceptible to risky behavior, even suicide. Impulsivity is part of typical teen development. Giving them the tools for impulse control will help them effectively combat negative impulses, including suicidal ideation.

Suicide prevention has never been more urgent. The statistics are grim, and growing. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

Yet in spite of all the prevention resources available, adults often don’t feel very well-equipped or very effective in this area.

Brittani Senser hosted a youth worker training with us that zeroed in on three skills all adults can practice and instill in young people, whether they are presenting warning signs of suicide ideation or not. Her idea is that these skills could help young people before they reach a point of desperately needing suicide prevention. She sees it as “pre-prevention.”

As a mental health professional and a mom, she arrived at this insight through the most painful personal experience. Her 13-year-old daughter, Aria Joy, completed suicide in February 2019.

If we would see the problem through a different lens, we may be able to reach more young people, sooner, and give them time to build the skills they need now. This is urgent because we know the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed for these higher-function skills. Our work can be a bridge of better options for young people while their brains are still developing.

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    Part 1: Impulse control as pre-prevention

    Impulsivity is the tendency to act without thinking. To a degree, impulsive behavior is common, especially in children and teenagers. Impulsivity is not necessarily a sign of trouble.

    But the teenage brain is more susceptible to the influence of impulsivity. And it can be very difficult to distinguish typical teenage behavior from the typical warning signs of suicide ideation.

    Taking a pre-prevention approach, we can help teenagers learn to handle their impulsivity in ways that reduce the risk for serious consequences. Impulse control is a useful strategy to keep young people safe and we simply cannot underestimate its importance in our aim of suicide prevention.

    Five strategies

    Impulse control is the degree to which a person can control the desire for immediate gratification.

    1. Model healthy behaviors: All adults, especially youth workers, can role model healthy behaviors to keep young people safe.
    2. Exercise: Talk with young people about the importance of exercise for releasing strong emotions and helping regulate mood.
    3. Meditation/Paced breathing: Expose young people to a variety of practices and let them choose what works best to calm themselves. That will instill a sense of autonomy, reinforce that they can handle their emotions/impulses, especially when you or another adult is not there.
    4. Cold water: If they just dip the upper part of their face and forehead, up to the temples, not covering the mouth so they can still breathe, in just 20 seconds their body chemistry will change for a sense of calm.
    5. Multitasking: Suggest or have them consider other activities to participate in when emotions are high, offer positive distractions such as upbeat music, or their favorite activity or book. Getting them up and moving will change their mood and perception in the moment, helping them get out of the impulsive space.

    Impulse control is the first of three suicide pre-prevention skills we’re focusing on in this three-part blog series. If you would like to learn more, check out Brittani’s full training, Pre-prevention Tools to Improve Suicide Prevention is free to our members.

    About the author

    Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Barbara a question or share your feedback about this blog, email barbara@yipa.org.

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