A couple of weeks ago I received the mass robo call and email notification that two seniors at my oldest son’s (Noah) high school had tragically died. Just a few weeks into the new school year and just like that, these families’ lives were forever changed.
Initially, my son reported to me that the deaths were the result of a car accident. However, by the next day he called me while I was still at work (an unusual thing for him to do – text is more his style) to let me know that the two students’ deaths were the result of suicide. Suicide? Soon thereafter, Channel 2 Action News broke the story and an official letter was emailed later that evening from the Principle of the school. It was indeed confirmed to be true. Whoa.
I spend most of my days in an environment where I am fluent in all things mental health. I have seen and heard so many stories of loss and desperation over the past few decades that I have likely developed a certain tolerance. I usually pivot quickly to “what can we do next? …. how do we educate others…? how do we save a life?” I think about the masses of people and begin to do what I have done here through this platform – consider how I can make the most impact on the most amount of people as quickly as possible. This is, after all, a crisis we are in; the stories are endless.
But what happens when your 13-year-old son says he feels stressed? When your knee jerk reaction is to think: “Stress, little boy you are in the 8th grade, what could you possibly be stressed about?...…You are too blessed to be stressed!”
Instantly and unfairly comparing my level of daily stress to what I perceive his to be. Fortunately, I did not say this to him, but I thought it. Instead, in the wake of the aforementioned tragedies, I paused, gave him a quick once over with a quick glance and saw something different. Something I didn’t expect to see when I first heard him mutter the sentiment of being stressed. I saw the actual look of “stress” on his face. There was no sarcasm in his voice, no hint of a grin; he sat stone faced waiting for me to say something to address his clearly articulated feeling. The feeling I almost dismissed. This was not because I am a bad parent, but because I am a human parent. One that tends to place my own responsibilities and levels of said stress on a much higher hierarchy than that of a child. However, for him, and in that very moment he articulated something that many children, young people and even adults do not always do so well.
After a pause that probably lasted only a minute, but felt like forever, I asked him to say more. He proceeded to discuss his utter frustration with his current teachers. The irritation was about his perceived lack of communication between the teachers. He was overwhelmed with the number of projects he had due in one week and could not understand how this amount of work could be assigned in the short time frame. He concluded that the teachers perhaps had not talked to each other and were unaware of what each were assigning. Lack of coordination was his concern and the abundance of work was just the result of that. Pretty insightful for a 13-year-old, huh? He raised decent points and in hindsight I did notice that his stress was elevated as he complained each day about the work but did whatever it took to complete it. He is competitive and an achiever, it is just his way, so I didn’t pay to much more attention to his earlier signs in the week. I knew he could handle it. But what if I was wrong?
By the end of the week, the grades for the projects and multiple assignments were entered into the electronic gradebook, and to his shock he received a zero on one of the projects; resulting in his grade for the class dropping from an A to a low C. He was livid. He insisted he completed the work. I knew that he had and assumed it was a mistake. However, it was evening time, and I suggested we follow up with the teacher first thing in the morning. Negative. He insisted that we (he and I) email the teacher, he wanted me “copied” on the email. He wanted an answer now. Taken a little aback, I zoned in on him saw the same clear signs of “stress” all over him and immediately began to help him craft his email. By morning the grade was updated to an A for the project, his overall grade moved back to an A and the teacher sent an apology email…and of course apologized to him in person. All was right in the world again.
I share this story because it has an important lesson in it. His stress was real. It didn’t have to match my level of stress, but for him it was real. It was impacting his mental wellness. This was a simple story, nothing of great disaster happened in the end and he will likely move on from this week unscathed; but I learned a few important things that all parents or caregivers of little people should think about:
1. An individual’s experience of stress is real for them. It is not meant to be comparable to yours.
2. Children need to feel supported and not dismissed. When we do this inadvertently, own it, apologize for it and be present.
3. Teach children that it is okay to express their feelings, especially boys. Help them learn to articulate what they are feeling so they can move to the next step (“what do I now do about this”)
I knew all of the above. I am trained to know all of the above. But in the midst of my own real life, I almost missed a pivotal and important opportunity to help my son take care of his mental WELLness. The story is also important because what drives an individual to even contemplate suicide does not happen in one day or overnight. It is not always the kids that “act out” or are labeled unruly, oppositional, and defiant. It is often the over-achiever. The one that seems ok on the outside but shows you a glimpse of their internal stress, despair, anxiety or depression, but easily glides back to a happy face on the outside. It is never too early to talk to your kids about their mental health, as every single day presents them with a new challenge a new conflict a new opportunity to go off track on their mental health wellness journey.