"Help me -- I feel alone, trapped and my options are down to zero." There isn't a week that goes by without hearing that another teen has attempted or "successfully" committed suicide. In my own neighborhood, there have been at least 14 deaths since 2009. Even one is too much.
Though the situations may appear different, they all share some common issues:
• Trying to fit in and belong
• The urgency to live authentically
• The idea of being "successful"
1. Trying to fit in and belong.
"If these children had knives in their hands, my daughter, Dara, would have been dead a long time ago." The feelings of isolation can start early. In a relevant CBS piece called Words Can Kill Dara, age 13, remembers being targeted in school as young as 6 years old with messages like, "nobody likes you, you're ugly." By fourth grade, she faced verbal knock-out punches like, "Oh you're in class -- we hoped you were dead."
By that time, no matter how much she wanted to fit in, the online bullying had started as well. In Dara's words, "People start to tell you these things about you, and you think, 'oh is that what people think about you?' and then you start to believe it." The Mean Girls/Boys Syndrome is not just a phase. It is reinforced every year and perpetuated by fearful beliefs, like "If I support the outcast, will I become the next victim?"
Problems escalate when intolerance for differences coexists with a tolerance for hate. Cyberbullying can and does drive kids to death. The intent of circulating cutting remarks or hurtful photos is blatantly to deliver harm. If a student brought a weapon to school, there would be an uproar. Yet, anonymous social media sites not only fan the flames of hate, they actually normalize it; that is one of the most disturbing parts.
Is your child experiencing what feels like a hate crime, and are authorities saying, "That's just the way it is?"
2. The Urgency to Live Authentically.
The pressures to fit into a certain mold are very real, and those who are different in any way (the way they look, dress, sexual orientation, or even their creative pursuits) often find themselves tormented by bullies.
On the last day of the year, Leelah Alcorn felt that she could not find another way. Leelah, a 17 year old transgender who was trying to build an authentic identity, posted a suicide note, before she stepped in front of a tractor trailer near her home. She is not the only one. One survey states that more than 40 percent of all transgenders attempt suicide. Her message serves as a wakeup call for compassion and change. Leelah's final words were, "There's no winning. There's no way out... My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year, my death needs to mean something... fix society."
Is your child someone who fits in or is she/he an individual who has a unique perspective on life? Can you help them express their innate strengths, and defend their right to do so?
3. Defining "Success."
The need to achieve is often tied in with the need to keep up or make others happy. At Stanford University, there is something called the "Stanford Duck Syndrome." It suggests that on the surface, students look unruffled, like they are gliding along smoothly, but underneath, the truth is that many are paddling frantically just to stay afloat. Keeping up appearances, while drowning inside from the weight of that stress, is not just an issue in the Ivy's. A total of 50.7 percent of college students felt overwhelming anxiety within the last year, according to a nationwide American College Health Assessment survey.
It starts from a young age. In many communities there is enormous pressure to not only to do well, but to be the best. Kids are brought up with the expectation that they must go to top schools; it's part of their "identity" and what their parents are expecting. So, they are loaded with far too many AP classes and extracurricular activities, which may be of no personal interest at all, except to enhance their resume.
The idea of building on your own strengths, finding personal expression or even exploring subject areas that do not have a large enough ROI (resume optimizing impact) is often looked down upon or vetoed. Many kids go through their formative years as "performance generators" feeling like their most unique qualities are not recognized or valued by those closest to them.
Internally, kids often believe that if they let up or cannot keep up, their parents would be devastated. Even more insidious is that these young people can be even harder on themselves, feeling shame for not living up to expectations and hating themselves for not "succeeding." That's when the options begin to narrow.
What is your definition of success? At the end of the day, what do you really want for your child?
After yet another suicide in my neighborhood, on January 24th, one student writes:
"School is not the entire reason, but it is definitely a large contributor to our deteriorating health. Yes, mental disability can be a part, but just think for a moment on how and why it develops... Good God, the things you put us through. It's AP classes, it's SAT prep from day 1, it's punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly... Quit coddling each other about your fears and how sad it is to deal with us and actually talk to your kids. Listen to us. I get our future success is extremely important and supposedly vital in a society like ours, but why is our mental health and emotional stability less significant? ...I am so, so angry...We cannot wait for change. We need it now." [sic]
Cause and Effects
Suicides are often blamed on mental instability, and that can certainly be a factor. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be the second largest cause of human suffering. That said, it's time to question: what are the cultural conditions we've created which breed this instability, pressure cooker environment, perceived lack of options, and depression?
Basic Human Needs
All of these stories highlight the needs that every human being shares -- to be accepted, to belong and to be loved. Band-aid approaches, like adding an extra counselor after the fact, cannot address the source of the problem. It is encouraging that there are other ways.
When my daughter was facing depression, I began a journey to find tools that could help others too. Working with educators, we created the Project Happiness social and emotional curriculum, which works at the root cause level. I have learned that preventative wellness and developing empathy are at least as important as math or history. Programs like this create the awareness, strategies and the emotional resilience so kids can have a history. I know that with a good foundation in these skills, the best is yet to come.
These core needs show up in families too. Both parents and their kids want to be feel respected by one another and also by their peers. But as parents, let's consider finding our own feelings of accomplishment, not living through those of our kids. With all best intentions, instead of putting them in a mold, let's help them be inspired by their talents, appreciate their passions, and pave the way for their potential to emerge. Let's help them see past a fear-driven mindset. It's not about being the best, it's about trying your best. It's not about test results, it's about curiosity and the process of learning.
Consider: what beliefs are you holding about belonging, authenticity and success that are shaping your children's futures? What are we really asking of our kids?
Choosing Love over Fear
Instead of succumbing to the fear of not being enough, let them know that they are loved just as they are. The sheer acceptance and support from a parent is more reassuring and motivating than any accomplishment could ever be. Help them understand that being kind to themselves makes them stronger and serves as an antidote to the hurt. Help them to not believe the voices of doubt and hate, wherever they come from. Help them discover that they are here for a reason, and there are always choices and options, no matter what.