News of another teen's suicide spread very quickly this week in our town. This is the second family hit by similar tragedy in the past month, from the same high school. Those of us who learned of the second boy immediately wanted to know what happened and why it happened. We wanted to be able to point to a reason...academic stress? romantic relationship gone awry? drugs? sexual identity issues? Previous mental health issues? A combination of these things? What!?!
As bystanders we think that if we can point to something we'll feel a modicum of relief to quell our growing fear the same thing could happen to one of our own children. Because if we know how and why it happened to someone else's family we can somehow make sure it doesn't happen in our own.
One of the most often asked questions at a time like this is "what should we look for...what are the signs my child might be in trouble?" How do we know what is "normal teen angst" and what needs immediate attention? Although I did not know either family who tragically lost their sons, I imagine a parent who is forced to walk this dark path might submit themselves to a similar interrogation endlessly.
I am currently reading a fascinating book about adolescence and the brain written by Laurence Steinberg, PhD. titled Age of Opportunity Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence which talks about the ways in which the brain, during this period of time (which is to say, ages 10-25...because this is how we define the period of development called adolescence nowadays) is highly "plastic", meaning it undergoes a heightened sense of awareness, hyperactive growth and pruning and is much more susceptible to stress than in childhood or even adulthood. The brain, during adolescence, is also much more likely to take risks. Therefore it is a time in life when one feels more emphatically. In addition, it turns out we remember a lot more from this period of time in our lives than any other because, aside from the infant-toddler stage, there is no other time in our life when the brain undergoes such significant change.
As parents of this age group, how can we protect our kids from themselves? While we can't do so (or even hope to) 100% of the time, there are a few things we can do to offer the best possible security.
First, and foremost, we can work on strengthening the connection we have with our kids. This means letting them know often that we love them, without condition. They've got to know that our physical affection and words of praise are not dependent on how well they do in school, or how many points they score, or if they got the lead in the school play, or if they got invited to so-and-so's BIG 16th birthday bash. Let them know you love them just for being who they are. Maybe it's their free-spirit, or willingness to try new things...think about the qualities in your child that you admire. Physical affection is important now too, yes even with teens. It doesn't have to be big (embarrassing) hugs everyday, maybe a pat on the shoulder as you walk by, or making the effort to stop by their room before bed to sit on the edge of it and really connect with them about the day they've had. When children feel genuinely loved, they are almost always less needy.
Tend to their emotional needs. Try to understand where your child is coming from by taking a step out of your own perspective and into theirs. You will also need to become more in tune with your child's moods. I happen to have pretty quiet kids, but I can tell when they've gotten quieter than usual and I will make the time to sit down and ask (with eye contact) if things are going okay or if there is anything they'd like to share with a "nonjudgmental, compassionate mom like me" (yes, I will make it sound kind of funny and use actual finger quotes because that's what usually prompts them to open up).
Be firm and consistent. Keep the rules to a minimum (and explain your reasoning for them to your child). Be steadfast in consistently keeping the ones you set so your kids know what to count on from you. We learn to regulate ourselves by being regulated and during adolescence (with the above description of brain development) it is essential to be cognizant of the balance between allowing them independence and holding tight the reins. State your expectations, making them clear on things like drug/alcohol use, dating, curfew.
Focus on effort, not outcome. Pay careful attention to link your child with their effort, rather than telling them how proud you are of them because they are smart or some other broad compliment that would lead them to believe they have to be smart (or pretty, or whatever) in order for you to be the proud/loving parent.
While these steps are important to practice everyday as the parent of an adolescent, the reality is...
even if we have a super-strong-bond-with-open-communication-genuine-relationship with our children we will never truly know what is going on in their mind and what they might be struggling over.
One of the foundations of life I have found comfort in for myself is this: we do not know why our child's spirit chose to come into the world and what it is they are meant to accomplish on the path through which we are all connected. We can choose to live in fear that we won't know what we would do if it happens within our family, or we can use the tragedies we hear about to wake us up to appreciating and working on the relationships we are currently involved in.
It's just that simple.
Chose love over fear.