From Amy Yoder McGloughlin. This piece originally appeared in Practicing Families.
I’d like to think that my kids (ages 11 and 14 now) would come to me and tell me anything. I would like to believe that there is no problem too big, too difficult or too painful for us to discuss. We’ve talked about a lot of things together... conflicts with friends, changing bodies, our values and boundaries around sex. I’d like to think that if we can talk together about sex without too much squirming or funny faces, then we can talk about anything.
But, I can never assume it.
Last week, a family in a neighboring town looked frantically for their thirteen year old son who had left their home on a cold night, right before a big snowstorm. He was missing for four days and nights. In those terrible long days and nights, the parents learned that he'd left home after receiving an email from school about a homework assignment that was late.
This story was difficult for me as a parent for a few reasons. First, this child is around the same age as my kids, and second, he was in the struggle that I face too often with my own kids–the relationship between homework and self-esteem.
My kids put a lot of stock in their grades. So if they forget or avoid an assignment and get an unsatisfying grade, in their eyes they have failed. I work really hard not to put the pressure on them around grades, because they do that without my help. They need me to tell them that they are loved. They need me to set good, safe boundaries for them.
Monday morning, after this child was missing for almost five days, he was found in a neighbor’s back yard. He had taken a gun from his family home – a gun that was fitted with a trigger lock – and taken his life. At thirteen.
Last night at dinner, I told the kids the story of this child, a child that could have been their friend. And I reminded them that there was nothing they couldn’t tell me. They never had to worry about me not loving them in the difficult times.
Sometimes it’s hard for kids to remember that. I remember as a kid being worried that my parent’s love was conditional. I remember the terrible fear that I would disappoint or embarrass them. Looking back on that now, it seems a little silly. I don’t think my parents would have been disappointed in me or angry with the little things I saw as a failure then. But these are the things our kids worry about. These things can paralyze our children, and lead them to think and do some unimaginable things.
Suicide is a very complicated thing. To be honest, I hesitate to write about it it here. It’s tempting to be judgemental about gun safety or homework or parenting in the case of the child that took his life. And I refuse to go there. The story of this child’s death is probably far more complicated than we can ever imagine. What I do know is that my children and your children need to hear that they are loved regardless of grades, performance or ability.