According to the most prominent TV shrinks, teenagers' brains are not fully developed, and they lack certain critical faculties like judgement, conscience and the capacity to think about abstract issues.
What a load of crap.
Obviously teens brains are not fully developed--they're kids. But if you follow TV shrink logic, then all adults with fully developed brains are sound in judgement, have nicely developed senses of right and wrong, and find abstractions like, say, Health Care Reform easy to think and talk about.
It makes you wonder if any of these guys ever actually watch the news, or stand in line somewhere, or even eat at Denny's!
Sure, the brain does continue to develop throughout adolescence, and further, but conscience and judgement and critical thinking are not just tissue functions, they are also learned. And I don't mean necessarily learned in school, I mean learned at home, in church, from peers, etc., etc.
Kids tell me when I get a little too conscious of all this developmental stuff that I am talking down to them. Know what? They're right. So, thought number one is:
- Say it straight. If you're talking about death, talk about death. Approach it like you would talking to any other human being, with a mixture of sadness, respect and awe. Don't assume that you know what your teenager feels anymore than you would a friend. How many times have we expressed condolences to someone about the death of a loved one, assuming this was a heartfelt loss, only to have the person shrug it off, and say, we weren't that close. It can be the same way for kids, but then again, sometimes just the presence of sudden death among the young is, of itself, a terrifying intrusion.
- Suicide sucks and the closer you are to the person who died, the more it sucks. You feel all the things that you feel with any death, but with the volume turned all the way up. All violent deaths are horribly painful, but suicides have that extra, is there anything I could have done, factor. The way to talk about it is to acknowledge that getting over a death like that is a process, and it is going to take as long as it takes. Let me repeat that: as long as it takes. As Long As It Takes. I had a parent not too long ago who said to me, about his kid dealing with a friend's death, "but it was two weeks ago!" He is not a mean or callous man, he is someone who hates seeing his kid hurting. It's tough, but it takes as long as it takes.
- Start the dialog now, not when the trouble starts. Some parents seem to have that intuitive way of talking with their kids. Not at them, with them. They disclose, they don't just interrogate. They wear parenthood lightly, not like a suit of armor. Whenever someone tells you that you can't be a friend to your kids, take a look at that person's friends. Because if friends support, confront, push each other to excel, offer help when needed, then guess what? Not only can you be a friend to your kid, you damn well better be. Because if you are not doing those things, then what are you doing?
- Some grieving has to be done with peers. When you lose a friend, do you only grieve with their parents or your parents? Of course not. You want to get with your friends who were also friends of the person who died. The teens are no different. Keep your eyes and ears open in the event that the grieving process is turning into a drug or booze binge, but let them get together and grieve.
- Easy on the counseling. Some of the kids I have been talking to since the recent spate of suicides in my area really resent the whole "you need to see a counselor" thing, usually initiated by the school. One went so far as to say that they didn't believe the school was interested in him at all. "They were just covering their ass," he said. Smart kid.
- Educate yourself. Anyone with a computer can find a lot of resources, some of them linked to this page. Explore them, check them out, see what is helpful for you. One of the things you are likely to learn is that overall, as a society, we don't grieve very well. It's an important thing to learn, because in life, we are all going to encounter things we will grieve over. Guaranteed.
Most important, remember, life goes on.