Sunday, March 20, 2011

Catch Them Before They Fall

Connor is the kind of guy every mom wants her daughter to someday meet and marry! Handsome, funny, smart, kind, wealthy and charismatic: Connor has plenty of friends and the respect of his private school teachers (Ivy League recruiters are already beating down his door). He is the all-American ‘golden’ boy, and it is very easy to forget that he is only 17.

Was. Was only 17.

He was only 17 when he jumped to his death last month, alone, at 3:00 a.m. from the cold, snowy roof of a luxury apartment building near his elite, college prep boarding school. He left a note to his parents, apologizing.

Two nights earlier he had been stopped by the police while driving friends back to school after a classmate’s birthday party. He was issued a DUI; his parents were notified by an officer’s long-distance phone call, and were understandably upset.

Drinking and driving? What were you thinking? his parents might have said (I would have). Perhaps followed by:

You think you’ll get into Harvard with a DUI on your record?! (This would be parental fear and hurt talking). Plus, maybe even:

You’ve let everyone down. We thought you were responsible and we are very disappointed. The typical parental script.

Unfortunately, Connor’s parents were many states away and couldn’t put their arms around him for a hug once their anger died down. They couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him that no-matter-what he was loved, and that there was no problem in the world that couldn’t be tackled together. Programmed from birth for success, the drunk-driving ticket was an unprecedented first misstep for Connor… but he was sober when he walked off the high-rise two nights later. He suffered the pain and despair of letting down his world, silently. There was no one to stop his fall, no one to ‘catch’ him before he jumped.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem his parents would have told him.

You have other options, they would have added. Sure, we’re upset, but we’ll stand next to you and we’ll get through this together. Plus, probably even:

Every single person on this earth has made at least one stupid mistake. You learn from a mistake, rectify what you can, and are a better, stronger person for the experience. I am proud of you for stepping up.

No one expects their teen-ager to commit suicide. What we forget is that our smart, high-achieving, responsible high-schoolers are still in transit from childhood: their brain neurology is in process, their emotions are in flux. Our teens are not equipped to take the long view and discern what is truly life-altering -- or what is merely a tiny glitch in the grand scheme of being.

Teens live in the intensity of the moment, and their narrow parameters are school, friends and family. Parents draw the boundaries and the expectations. Sometimes we forget to tell our children that our ‘boundaries’ have flexible walls, and that our ‘expectations’ are really declarations of confidence bolstered by our parental love and support. Sometimes we forget that our teens still need us to ‘catch’ them emotionally when they fall, or fail, and that we need to guide them toward healthy problem-solving.

Suicide may become a viable exit for the teen that is depressed; bullied; socially awkward; stressed and anxious; or a substance abuser. It may become a choice for a teen that sees no way out of intolerable feelings or devastating circumstances, or, who hasn’t had the experience to internalize the idea that time has a way of changing out all ‘hopeless’ situations.

For some teenagers, normal developmental changes, when compounded by other events or changes in their families such as divorce or moving to a new community, changes in friendships, difficulties in school, or other losses can be very upsetting and can become overwhelming. Problems may appear too difficult or embarrassing to overcome. For some, suicide may seem like a solution.” (Ohio State University Medical Center

Playing at ‘catch’ means parenting to our darkest fear, but we must bravely talk with our teens NOW about handling painful feelings, stupid mistakes or seemingly unbearable situations. We can state, demonstrate and reinforce our unfaltering presence in our children’s lives and openly address suicide alternatives -- and why death  is not part of a healthy teen’s arsenal of solutions.

We can voice over and over what Connor’s parents weren’t given a second chance to say:

I will never be disappointed by the essential you. There is nothing you can do that would make me stop loving you. There is nothing that you could do or feel that we couldn’t get through together. You have options, you have a wonderful future and I will help you find your way there.

By Jean MacLeod
Copyright 2011, MacLeod, All Rights Reserved
*Note: Name of teen has been changed for privacy


Teen Suicide (Warning Signs, Treatment, Prevention) from The Ohio State University Medical Center

The Teenage Brain: Why adolescents sleep in, take risks, and won’t listen to reason
by Nora Underwood in The WALRUS

How to Talk to Your Teens: Exploring the Stuck Spots
by Debbie B. Riley, M.S. in Adoption TODAY Magazine

Adoption Toolbox Tween & Teen Articles