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Teens and tragedy: What works, and what doesn't, to keep kids safe

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Last week was a hard news week for parents. Dr. Laura Berman, a relationship therapist prominent in the media has been bravely, openly grieving the death of her 16-year-old son who died from a drug overdose while in his bedroom, the drugs delivered to him by someone he met on Snapchat. Her hope in taking this public is to educate parents so they won’t have to feel her pain.

Parents of Alex Kearns, a 20-year old young man who died last June by suicide after thinking he’d lost almost 750,000 in investments, filed a lawsuit this week against the Robinhood trading platform, citing the company’s active outreach to and engagement of young, inexperienced investors without providing education or support. The Kearns’ also hope to spare other families this kind of tragedy.

Social media, drugs, experimentation, isolation, anxiety, mistakes, misunderstandings. It feels like either of these sweet boys could have been mine or yours. They were certainly ours.

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Stories like these quickly get traded around social media setting off alarm bells in terrified parents looking for reassurance that there is some way they can protect themselves and their children from being next.

Sometimes, that ends up sounding like questioning what led to this. What steps were taken or not, what observations clocked or ignored? And though this mental investigation comes from trying to understand – at least enough to avoid the same fate – it feels like judgment. When a parent loses a child, no matter the circumstances, they deserve compassion, not analysis.

The hard truth about being human and loving other humans is that there is nothing you can do to keep them perfectly safe. It’s important to say this loudly to ourselves at a time like this because it’s the truth, because attempts to lock down a teen’s world to keep them safe often backfire in unsafe ways, and because if we don’t reckon with this, we might verge into the territory of “othering” families who suffer tragedy, comforting ourselves with the notion that it couldn’t be us.

Though much is out of their control, there are some things parents can do to improve the odds that tweens and teens survive adolescence. Mistakes, guilt, and regret are part of growing up. Don’t spend your energy trying to shackle your teen to a safe zone so nothing bad happens to them. Instead, focus on developing your relationship so that when something happens, when impulsiveness, peer pressure, self-doubt, anger, or anguish come knocking, your child opens the door and invites you in to help.

In my online parenting group for parents of middle schoolers, reactions to this week’s stories were deep and heartfelt.

Brooke G., a mom from Houston, TX wrote, “For me, it was another example of how many conversations I want to have with my preteens as they take on more adult responsibilities.”

“My biggest takeaway from this article,” wrote Kim M from Charlotte, NC “is how critical it is to constantly reinforce to my kid that WHATEVER trouble they think they are in, I want to be his FIRST call, not his last as we will always help him deal with whatever situation arises together; he is not alone.”

And Jen D. from Duxbury, MA replied, “Parents need to show they are more tolerant and understanding when kids make mistakes (not a character flaw, just a tool to teach) and be good role models on how to handle failure. That starts young, but is super important in middle school as kids are itching to be more independent. You can’t be an authoritarian parent who punishes mistakes/failures and expect a kid who made one feel like they can come to you.”

These moms are tapping into something much more effective than monitoring apps or curfews can provide. Not that either of those tools are inherently bad, but they only offer you feedback after something has gone wrong. Someone posts something inappropriate and you’re alerted after the damage is done. Someone came in two hours past curfew and now you know you need to come up with a consequence. Neither of these are preventative, nor particularly educational, and most importantly, neither strengthen your relationship.

In my book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen, I write about ways parents can engage their tweens and teens in more meaningful conversations, at an age when kids naturally – and forcefully - begin to shut down communication. Here are some tips that might help you:

Use news stories like the ones mentioned here to bring up hard topics, but don’t get personal right away. Tweens and teens feel preemptively defensive that parents are suspicious or looking for a reason to restrict them, so they clam up if you dive into the deep end rather than dipping in a toe. Asking a broader question to begin with, like “How are you and your friends feeling about this?” generalizes the conversation so your child doesn’t feel targeted.

Make it clear that you know mistakes will happen and that they’re a normal and natural part of life. Their job isn’t to be perfect, and your job isn’t to buffer them from ever feeling hard emotions. Your job is to support them and explain that you will always do that. When your child seems to be upset, emotional or struggling, open-ended questions like, “How can I support you right now?” or “Would you like to talk through some options with me?” are much more enticing to an adolescent than when a parent simply tries to fix them.

It’s safe to talk with your adolescent, or even younger child, about suicide and death. Children as young as 3rd grade are aware of the concept. Studies show no increase in suicide ideation from discussing or asking about suicidal thoughts. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Talking with kids about suicide actually improves their thoughts according to a 2014 study published in the National Library of Medicine. Just be sure you’re using supportive language such as, “You don’t have to handle hard feelings alone. I can find you someone who can help.” Avoid saying things like, “You’re not thinking of doing anything crazy, are you?” which sends a message to kids that they are bad and should stay quiet about how they feel.

How we talk to our kids at times like these is just as important as how we talk to parents. Think about what you say, how you say it, and when you say it. But the most important thing is that you start talking. The most important message you can send is that you’re a safe place to turn. It’s time to set aside judgment and embrace a gentler approach to making sure we feel more connected with each other.

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