Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Being the child of two therapists can make for an interesting upbringing. Hearing “And how did that make you feel?” regularly became an annoyance of mine by the age of 10. There were moments when I blamed my parents’ profession for uncomfortable situations and decided at a very young age that I didn’t want to continue living in a “therapeutic” lifestyle. I longed to get as far away from the mental health field as possible but still held onto the desire to be a helper in this world. It’s funny how life works sometimes.
Friends have always come to me for advice. I have never been sure what attracted them to me in that way, but it always made me feel needed and important, so I was comfortable taking on that role. I would talk them through their crushes or the fights they had with their parents. It was natural for me. I suppose growing up in a house with two psychologists may have had something to do with it; human behavior and mental health were common topics at the dinner table. I was taught to think through typical life situations by setting goals, analyzing, and reflecting on myself.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my parents. Yep, that’s right. Even therapists have teens who don’t want to talk to them. Of my siblings, I was the toughest through those years. My independent, adventurous soul mixed with my curious and eager heart created quite the challenge for my parents—from sneaking out from a second-floor window to not showing any interest in school to rolling my eyes and asking “Why!?” through every lecture. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say and convinced myself that they had no idea how hard my life was and didn’t care. The anger and tension in my relationship with my parents bothered me. Was this inevitable? Was this just the natural parent–teen relationship?
Through the most emotionally confusing season of one’s life (the teenage years), I have found that this distance is, in fact, natural and inevitable. As parents, we want our kids to create some gradual distance; that is, we want a healthy distance that prepares them for being independent individuals in this big, scary world. However, many times, when the parent–teenager relationship is filled with anger, tension, and hostility (as my relationship with my parents was), it is unhealthy. Unfortunately, this is extremely common.
As a parent, you can read all the parenting self-help books out there, but unless the advice in those books is realistic about the fact that parents are emotionally attached to their child, all the behavior plans and advice won’t make a damn bit of difference. My parents found that to be very true when parenting three teenagers all at once. Here were two professional therapists who specialized in working with people and behaviors, and parenting, at times, still stumped them too.
I made it through those teenage years successfully, as did my parents, and I am now sitting on the other side. I am now a mom and a therapist. I have four young boys who teach me new, beautiful things about life every day, but they also drive me to my absolute worst at times. The emotions I experience as a mother are like nothing I have felt before—immense love and fear all at once. It’s overwhelming.
Because of my job, I have become familiar with a lot of issues and warning signs that are very helpful to me as a mother. I hear parents complain about their teenagers and teenagers complain about their parents. One thing I’ve learned that stands out is that parents today are more disconnected from their children than ever before. Our kids are growing up in a world that has become almost impossible for parents to relate to. The needs are the same. The emotions are the same. But the circumstances and influences are very different. That’s where I come in. My job has given me an amazing advantage. I get to sit with teenagers, who are currently growing up in this culture, and I listen to their thoughts and their struggles. I hear all of their secrets, their inner thoughts. I am connecting with today’s youth, and it is helping me tremendously as a parent.
I had this vision and passion when I decided to become a therapist that I wanted to be a helper for the emotionally confused adolescents of this world. When I started working in private practice and building my clientele, they were mostly female adolescents. I desperately wanted to be their guide and provide a safe place through the toughest years of their life.
When I started, I felt extremely comfortable sitting with these adolescents. I used my own experience as a teen to relate to them, and I was confident that I could help them through school stressors, boyfriend and girlfriend drama, nagging parents, and emotional rollercoasters. But something hit me hard that I wasn’t expecting—something that I could not relate to even though I was once from their same hometown and went to the same high school and had strict and “annoying” parents and certainly dealt with my fair share of high school drama. They were thinking about suicide. Some had already attempted suicide. Every single one of my adolescent clients was experiencing suicidal ideation. I became extremely confused, scared, and unqualified.
I was hit hard, not because of suicidal ideation (I expected to face that as a therapist), but most of my clients with suicidal ideation didn’t fit what I knew suicidal ideation to look or sound like. I studied suicide in graduate school. I was aware of common causes and how to work with suicidal clients. I had experience working with individuals struggling with suicidal thinking while interning, but this felt different.
These were seemingly normal, typical girls with all the typical teenage issues: boyfriend/girlfriend drama, dating, weed, sex, vaping, bad hair days, insecurities, arguing with mom, being labeled “lazy,” grades dropping, dads yelling—all the things we all have heard for years and years and years and that most of us dealt with at that age as well. But the difference between these girls and me at that age was that their go-to answer was suicide. All of them were having suicidal ideation.
The more I listened, the quicker I realized that they didn’t have any of those traditional suicidal root causes. Why did suicide seem like a viable solution to them? When I was in high school—which wasn’t that long ago—the biggest scare for parents was driving accidents. While that is still one of the main concerns for parents, now we need to add teen suicide to that list. What’s happening within our youths’ hearts and minds that so many of them are suffering so horribly? I know suicide has always been an issue, but what’s different now that has made it the issue?
The town I work and live in (and also grew up in) was experiencing what is called a suicide cluster. That is just what it sounds like: multiple suicides in a short amount of time and typically all done the same way. There had been multiple cases of teenage girls in the area hanging themselves or trying to. I had one young client during this time while discussing a recent suicide who said things like, “Well she was successful; good for her.” How can a 14-year-old with a seemingly stable upbringing call suicide a success?
The parents of my clients were coming to me for answers, but I didn’t have them. My friends with young children were asking me these questions, and I had nothing to offer them. I absolutely hated that my response was “I don’t know.”
Raising my four sons in a world where something like this happens is confusing, heartbreaking, and terrifying to me, but suicide now seems to be a common and casual solution for our youth. At the rate we’re going, our kids have a 100% chance of knowing multiple kids who take their lives before graduating high school. Let that sink in: the thought of our children having to deal with the grief, heartache, and trauma of knowing someone who has committed suicide. What if your own child has the urge to commit suicide? This is my call to action to save their lives.
Your children’s voice
Typically, therapists have landed this role because they are natural born helpers. And sometimes being a helper blurs together with the passion of wanting to save others. I find myself stuck in that blur often, and my passion drives me to want to save my clients. While being saved is truly a mission that the client can and needs to embark on themselves, because they are the only ones who can truly save themselves, I am fueled by the ambition to do all I can do to provide them with a good setup.
I feel like the biblical Noah building the ark. I know a storm is on its way, and the clouds are ominous, so come with me for protection. I feel like Chicken Little screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” but, instead, it’s “Our kids are falling! Our kids are falling!” I am not crying wolf here. I know this because the parents whose attention I do grasp agree with me and are overwhelmingly grateful for my willingness to share. I get amazing feedback from these parent conversations and presentations and hear comments like, “Every parent needs to know this.” I know this because my colleagues ask me questions and when I answer they respond with agreement and understanding. I know this because every human I have spoken to about this in my personal life is encouraging me to keep pushing through the struggle because this is too important to give up on. I know this because my clients, my adolescent clients that currently struggle with this issue, have 100% agreed with me. They have read my work and have approved my research and findings. I’m coming straight from the source. I am their voice. I am my children’s voice. I am your children’s voice. I am here to tell you what I have learned as a therapist and a mother.