A Guide to Parenting a Suicidal Teen

When you left the hospital with your firstborn, you joked about how ridiculous it is they let you take this entire human home as if you have any clue what you’re doing. She seems so fragile compared to every car on the road between the hospital and home and HOW THE HELL LONG IS THIS DRIVE because it wasn’t nearly as long from the house to the hospital before.

You all struggle to figure each other out. It takes time. There’s a lot of crying. Sometimes it’s even the baby.

She grows and grows and becomes a spirited human that you marvel at. In many ways, she’s stronger than you are. She teaches you about kindness and imagination. She grows and grows and becomes a young woman. In many ways, she is braver than you are. She teaches you about friendships and my little pony and anime and how freeing dancing in the car is at stoplights. And then one day it changes.

Except it wasn’t one day. It took months of small, tiny, almost unnoticeable changes. She started eating in her room or not eating at all. She started hiding in a fort and not coming down. She became impossible to wake up for school and she started screaming and spitting back angry words to simple requests.

The rug is ripped out and you’re falling.

You didn’t notice because you were struggling with your own stuff. You didn’t notice because she was always the happy one. You didn’t notice because she was always so independent. You didn’t notice and now you are afraid of how easy it was not to notice.

Now you notice and you’re scared. You take action and offer her a door. There’s hope. You understand, maybe too much, but it doesn’t matter because this is her pain, her life, her illness, not yours.

You wish it was yours because you would do anything to take it away for her.

It hurts. It hurts physically to see her so sad. Trust me, I know. It might very well be the worst nightmare I could imagine and we’re living it right now. Today. This hour.

Since reading “Love Warrior,” I’m focused on “The Next Right Thing.” I’m focused on action and forward motions and trying desperately to look The Fear Monster in the face and tell him I understand, thank you, but I really need to get going on my to-do list. And then I tell the Inadequate Monster that we can do this. We can do the Next Right Thing, tell The Big Truths, and Keep Moving Forward. So together, Fear, Inadequacy, and I wrote this note:

A Guide to Parenting a Suicidal Teen

1. Be honest.

You demand honesty from your children and they know if you’re lying to them. They know if you’re hiding something. You can’t expect them to be honest with you if you’re not honest with them. Say the difficult truths. Maybe say some of the truths you think they’re too young to understand. Say the Big Awful Truths. They can handle the Big Awful Truths if you’re being honest, they can’t handle hiding anything or lying, regardless of how well-meaning you think you’re being.

2. Listen.

They’ve been reaching out and you didn’t hear it. Don’t be upset at this news, it’s ok. You are doing the best you can. Start listening. Listen to the little things about their friends or about a new anime, or about a new club, or student, or whatever. Just listen and ask questions and let them know you’re present and not doing the dishes or mentally calculating how much money is left before the end of the month.

3. Go see a professional.

Depression is chemical. Do not demand that your child “just look at the bright side.” Even if your child looks like she/he is “doing better” because they’re “back to normal”, go let a professional know what’s going on. This is bigger than you or your child. Depression is nobody’s fault. It’s not a result of school or home, but those environmental factors can seem much worse when your child’s brain is already skewed with negative self chatter. It’s called “distorted thinking” and it’s loud and powerful and you won’t be able to logic the depression monster.

4. Know that you can’t logic the depression monster.

Don’t ask “why are you feeling this way?” They don’t know. “What can we do to help?” They don’t know. “What do you need?” They don’t know. Soon these questions will point out how helpless they are to change and spiral into more hopelessness. The answers aren’t what you think and they aren’t obvious. The answer is a chemical. It’s not logical. It defies logic. Depression is known for being a liar. It lies and it twists and it takes logic and changes truths.

5. Find beauty, be gentle, be kind.

“We were designed to journey through the full measure of beauty and sorrows in life and survive.” -Jack Kornfield.

When your child can’t sleep and gets out her old toys she hasn’t played with in years, sit on the floor and play with her, even if it’s past her (and your) bedtime. When your child needs to scream, scream with her in the backyard, or her room, or the car. When you want to cry because it’s all too much, give yourself permission to sob gulps of sobs and snot and tears and ugly cry level face twisting. The invitation to play is beautiful. The screaming is out of kindness. The sobbing offers yourself a gentle release.

6. Offer a door.

When your child needs to get out of her skin, be a safe place and take her somewhere else. When my daughter wanted to run away, I told her to get her shoes. “Common,” I said, “We’re going somewhere.” She was surprised. She got her shoes on. We got in the car and were silent for a long while. And then she peeled off the layers covering her face; her hoodie down, her long hair pushed now behind her ear, and I saw her beautiful blue eyes for the first time in weeks. She wanted to run away and so we did. We did it together. She is not alone. I will not let her be alone. We are not alone. You are not alone.

7. Return.

Return to this list and update as needed. Return to this list as a reminder. Return to your happiest memories of your child. Return to your photos of their joyful faces in the rearview mirror. Return to your roots, your breathing, your home, your tribe, your safety, and know the Next Right Step will reveal itself when it’s time to take it. For now, keep returning.

This article originally appeared at MrsFlinger.us. 

Leslie Flinger
Leslie Flinger is a professional working mom of two who writes at her blog, Mrs. Flinger. She's an international speaker passionate for Women in Technology, and a front-end developer. Leslie wrote her first code when she was 12, and her babysitter is younger than her blog. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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