If You Have Children, Talk to Them

The importance of normalizing discussions about the 4 Ss with children.

On November 12, 2022, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the launch of the Muslim Mental Health Institute of Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was quite a beautiful gathering where a dynamic group of thought leaders from Canada and the United States engaged in powerful and honest, yet difficult conversations about issues that are not commonly talked about in the Muslim community—topics like domestic violence, addiction, sexual orientation and gender identity, religious trauma, and suicide.

The stigma surrounding mental health is not unique to the followers of Islam. In fact, it stems from the cultures and backgrounds individuals come from rather than from the religion itself. Both the teachings of the Quran and the traditions of prophet Muhammad encourage individuals to speak up, express their emotions, and engage in healing dialogues no matter how “uncomfortable” they might be.

I have asked colleagues and youth from different faith backgrounds about topics that lead to heated discussions and even unnecessary family conflict, and the 4 issues that keep coming up as causing the most distress for our children are the same that make us the most anxious and defensive. In my opinion, this should be a reason to engage in, rather than shy away from, these discussions.

The 4 themes that I have identified as sources of internal struggles for youth and external struggles with their parents are the 4 Ss:

  1. Spirituality: Children are curious, and they have the right to ask questions about God. For the most part, however, they are told that God is a “red line” and that they should not question any aspect of their religion, faith, or spirituality.
  2. Sexuality: Children might have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have to do with them trying to explore and figure out who they are. Some might act on impulses that can get them into trouble with their parents. Sexual education is not usually a topic of conversation between family members, and any reference to puberty or normal human attractions often lead to awkward and angry interactions between children and their parents.
  3. Substance use: Many children, especially in their teenage years, might try using alcohol and/or other substances out of boredom or curiosity, due to peer pressure, or in an effort to fill an emotional void. They will likely then get punished by their family or penalized by the system that failed to provide them with other healthy and attractive alternatives. Individuals usually “act out” because of either missing a basic need or lacking a crucial coping skill. It is better to work through these issues than it is to ignore or criminalize them.
  4. Suicide: This is the worst outcome of human despair, and it can devastate or break down the family unit. When our children feel that they have no choices and no resources, they might see no other exit out of their misery than to resort to self-harm. The problem with suicide is that it is a permanent “solution” to suffering. No parent wants to bury their child, but suicide is a topic that is seldom discussed in the family context.

If we do not make our homes safe for our children to talk about issues that weigh heavily on their minds, hearts, and souls, we might lose them. I urge you to love your children; equip them with healthy and safe tools so they can face these challenges with confidence and grace; and let them know that your door is always open for them and that you welcome them as they are. We love our children unconditionally.

It takes a whole village to keep its children safe. Parents, teachers, and religious and community leaders will serve these young souls well if they collaborate with psychosocial workers and mental health clinicians to normalize these discussions at home, in schools, and in places of worship.

I urge you all to not neglect your children or push them away, because you might otherwise end up attending their funeral. That is why initiatives like the Muslim Mental Health Institute of Canada are very important, because this cycle needs to be broken.

Dr Reda is a psychiatrist in Colorado. He is the author of The Wounded Healer: The Pain and Joy of Caregiving.