A couple of weeks ago, the Sacramento community was shaken by the news that a 15-year-old, sophomore boy at Jesuit High School died by suicide. Although I see boys from various high schools, all of them are talking about it. None knew him well, but all are profoundly affected. They’re wondering what happened. They’re sad for his family and close friends. Some are curious about why someone would end their life. Others are worried that they, too, might hurt themselves (even though they aren’t the least bit suicidal.) They feel out of control. They’re scared.
We parents are also scared. Since the pandemic started, suicide rates for teens, especially boys, have skyrocketed. We wonder how our kids are feeling. They might seem happy on the outside, but how are they on the inside? Will they talk to us if they get to a scary place? My son, KD, is 14. He and I talk all the time about our feelings, and he always tells me he feels fine. I have to trust that he is…
I’ve had some particularly insightful conversations lately with two adolescent boys (not from Jesuit) I see for counseling. I think their thoughts could shine some light on the internal world of teenage boys and be helpful for parents. I’ve asked if I could share their thoughts, and they gave me full permission. I’ve changed a few identifying details to help protect their confidentiality.
I met with “Paul” last week. He talked about the struggles he has had this year. He has dated a few girls, and he has had poor experiences with most of them. Part of the challenges revolve around how they can’t talk about their feelings. Since he wants that kind of connection he has bailed out.
But it’s more than that, and without getting into his issues too deeply, let’s just say he has gotten into some depressed states. It has been ugly, but he’s on the upswing.
As we reached the end of his last session, he asked me to share a poem that I think gives significant insight into his internal world.
Fear He Who Hides Behind One
To understand one must peel off the mask
One can be decaying in the mind, while flourishing in the eyes of others
One can muddy the water with success, to hide behind wealth
Like a sadistic American Psycho, or a simple Taxi Driver who is invisible to others
Our minds, as fragile as they are, are powerful
Many plagued by the inner working of thoughts, experience and emotion
Our skeletons in our closet that are hidden with a mere smile
Ruminating in the mind, repeating the rancid memories, too many to describe
Nobody knows what is happening inside
Except the mind itself
Sticks and stones may break our bones
But our minds
Our mind will shatter by itself when we are alone.
As I considered what I wanted to say about Paul’s poem, I met a couple of times with “Tim.” He’s another one of those reflective, sensitive adolescent boys. He too has struggled with dating, because girls haven’t been mature enough and able to talk about their feelings. He’s taking a break from dating, as he’s tired of being hurt by superficial girls…
Tim went through some really hard times with depression a few years ago, and he was seriously suicidal. He spent some time in the hospital and then in an intensive outpatient program (IOP.) When he finished, he was somewhat less suicidal, but he has deep scars from the experiences. These days, he still thinks about suicide regularly, but he’s much better. When I asked him why he never killed himself, he told me that he just wants to keep moving forward, and he has some hope that his future will be brighter. Hope is a new thing for him…
A couple of weeks ago, we really dug in, and he spoke directly to parents about what he and other teens need when they’re hurting. He said, “Teenagers don’t use drugs and alcohol for no reason. They use because things aren’t ok. Instead of getting on them because their grades plummet and they stay in their rooms all the time, parents should really ask them how they’re doing, really listen and help them talk though what isn’t ok. That would really help.”
At his next visit, Tim followed-up and said, “Kids are using because they’re looking for an escape. It’s important for parents to talk and help them figure out what they’re escaping from. Instead of flipping out, grounding them and taking away their things, they should address the problems and find solutions.” (He also said that it should be mandatory for kids to see a therapist at least once before they graduate from high school. I like this idea…).
Both Paul and Tim are sharing clear messages. Paul is letting us know that we parents must be aware of how our boys are doing. Everything might look ok on the outside. The smiles might be bright. The generosity is still there. But behind the eyes, things just might not be ok. And Tim has provided a roadmap for what kids need when they are making poor choices. He’s calling on parents not to just give consequences or focus on things that really miss the point. He is calling on parents to go below the surface and help. Rather than getting angry and taking away stuff when their grades plummet, he’s calling on parents to help figure out and fix things to help kids get what they need.
In my follow-up, I’ll look at ways we parents can “go beyond the front door” with our sons and get to the bottom of what they need. I understand that consequences are appropriate sometimes. But our boys need something different.
Until next time…