It’s a tough topic, teen suicide. But real, very real.
I think I’ve shared before that in my last year teaching, one of the girls in my homeroom, a straight A perfectionistic type from a great family, attempted suicide because she’d been raped and couldn’t see how her life could ever be right again. Rather like the main character in the TV series 13 Reasons Why.
I have to tell you, I was struck by how spot on the interactions are. The teens I worked with were just like that, slipping out of control so innocently. And the parents…so well intentioned and yet so unable to help their kids open up.
I couldn’t help but think about how I would coach those parents, what mistakes they were making.
Ready for this? Here are my big takeaways:
Almost every parent interaction included a well-intentioned offer to talk if the teens “needed anything.” The thing is, none of the kids feel safe enough to grab onto that offer.
You might be thinking, well, what more can a parent do? A lot.
Asking a teen to share about friends, bullying, relationships, sex…it’s vulnerable. If there’s no precedent, if these conversations aren’t already regularly happening, that simple offer isn’t going to be enough. It’s not compelling. The tone just isn’t right. It’s sort of like when an acquaintance asks, “how are you?” and you say “fine.” Just because they said the words doesn’t mean you feel safe to tell them about the raise you didn’t get or that you’re considering a divorce.
All of those parents needed to start by connecting with their teen, not asking for something, not catching them on the fly. There’s one scene where a father got close to having a real conversation with his son, and it’s because he set it up well and led with vulnerability. That dad positioned himself in a place where he couldn’t miss his son coming home, where they’d be comfortable with a bit of privacy, when they’d have some time to talk. He told a story from his own life, showing that he gets it, that he can relate…but then that’s it. The dad doesn’t push and the son walks away.
So first, set it up so that a conversation feels possible. Second, don’t expect your child to be vulnerable with you unless you’ve gone there first. Third, don’t let them go so easily!
After you share vulnerably, you really have to wait. Silence doesn’t mean the conversation is over. It takes people a long time to make a decision, to think something through. Sitting together through 15, 20, 30 seconds of silence might be how long it takes for your teen to decide to confide in you. Let it be a bit awkward. Be warm (not eager!) and they just might step up.
But if they try to cop out, hold their feet to the fire. Tell them you can handle your emotions, your side, if they’ll only talk with you. Be vulnerable again about how distant it feels to know your child is going through something but won’t talk to you about it. Your relationship has strength and you can use it for leverage. Your pain is compelling. It’s not a guilt trip if you’re not asking them to take care of you. It’s you being real with them, which is an invitation for them to be real with you.
And if you get the sense that they’re just telling you what you want to hear, call them on it! Not in anger, but with a warm knowing, “Aww, you’re just telling me what you think I want to hear. But what I really want to hear is what’s actually happening with you.” Keep the intensity. Without it, you won’t crack through.
If you haven’t watched the series, I recommend it. You’ll get a fairly accurate window into what teens are dealing with, how they try to handle things on their own, what mistakes they’re making. And how sweet yet impotent the adults are. You can learn from their mistakes. You can do better.
Teen suicide is no joke, and it’s fueled by isolation, by relationship problems. Something like half of all adolescent girls think about committing suicide, more like three quarters of girls who don’t identify as heteronormative. Those stats are about one third and one half for the boys. About one in four adolescent girls, one in eight boys will actually attempt. That’s wayyyy too high for comfort.
If you’re wondering how to do this with your teen, let’s talk. We can practice this and I’ll be able to give you some other ideas specific to your situation. Jump on my calendar here. Your teen doesn’t have to navigate adolescence alone, and you don’t have to figure out how to parent them alone.
In support of you,
P.S. I’ll be doing another Facebook Live Q&A in the group Tuesday, July 11th at 9 am PST, specifically on this topic. Lots of parents and lots of kids are watching 13 Reasons Why, and there’s so much material to talk about here, but for a lot of families, the conversations aren’t flowing easily. Join us in the group next Tues!