Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sometimes Good Intentions Aren't Enough Part II

I've been talking with kids about painful and scary stuff for a long time, and there's no easy way to do it. Human nature is to avoid pain, and the more we avoid, the scarier it gets. If you add to this the prevailing cultural view that teens are emotional time bombs just waiting to blow, then the task becomes impossible. So let's deconstruct some myths and talk some common sense.
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.
So, to sum up, the kids are not time bombs nor are they made of glass. They will dialog with you if you open it respectfully and allow them their feelings. Don't let the whole "cluster suicide" thing drive you crazy. It happens, but you would do well to look at all the times it doesn't happen, too.

Most important, remember, life goes on.


  1. Your perspective reminds me of Mike Males. His latest is here:

    I like this line:
    "Why, in an era when slandering a group of people based on the misdeeds of a few has rightly become taboo, does it remain acceptable to use isolated incidents to berate modern teenagers, particularly girls, as “mean” and “violent” and “bullies”? That is, why are we bullying girls?"

  2. Ken, thank you for this post. "Kids are not time bombs." I agree. In addition, the expectation that kids are time bombs is self perpetuating.

    I have a teacher who says, "Now I know some of you will fail this class," and "I hope this is a good group, but who knows?" This is all spoken to the whole class. How can student respect someone who enters a group relationship with automatic distrust?

    People in adolescence are people. They are in a chemically difficult portion of their lives. Respect the journey of the Adult-Child.

    You have wonderful logic, Ken. Thanks again.

  3. I'm so grateful that I found your blog. I appreciate your straight forward, no non-sense perspectives!! I look forward to your future posts! Thanks!

  4. Great post Ken. I don't have children but these are great things to know since I will likely be starting an Alateen group soon. I really don't know another way than to be real with them. I don't like walking on eggshells.

  5. Was there ever a point in time when elders felt the current generation of youth was either extreme, messed up, headed for disaster, or in some other manner terminal?

    Not that I am aware of.

    Multiple choice question.... If TV psychologists stir up fear about the current-day youth, do they stand to make"

    A. More money?
    B. Less money?

    As a recovering addict, alcoholic, and parent of teens, I find that more results come from good old fashioned common sense, common courtesy, and genuine, authentic relationships.

    My kids know how I feel and much of what I know about drugs, alcohol, and a myriad of social issues such as suicide, depression and relationships.

    The best thing I can give my kids is a healthy Dad who is in a healthy marriage.

    Psychology can add to these things, but can never be a substitute. Parenting is mostly common sense and wise communication.



  6. Thanks for this post. It can be challenging dealing with troubled teens. A lot of the things you mentioned should not be taken lightly. I’ve found Silver Hill Hospital’s website to be a useful source of information about treatments for Adolescent depression.