Can you innoculate your kids for depression or fear that can lead to cutting behavior, or worse, teen suicide?
I have two kids. I thought they were doing pretty well. Well, they are now. My son is 23 working in the software industry and loving it. My daughter is 19 and backpacking Europe, and loving it. But a few years ago, when they were young and mid teens, they weren't so well.
They both have (had?) ADD. My son had ADHD. Girls tend to have it differently, get better grades, etc., but that's a stereotype because some guys do that, and some girls have ADHD or ADD just like boys, but I suspect there are more typical ADHD boys than girls, nonetheless. Of course you have to deal with things like ADD/ADHD appropriately; get a therapist if you have this type of child. Do not think you can do it on your own. Many marriage break up due to this condition. It is prevalent among step parents of these children, but even birth parents have left a marriage and parenting situation due to the stress involved. It's tough. No doubt about it, and it's frequently, counter-intuitive.
But I'm not really here today to talk about ADD or ADHD.
Our home life was basically good, they had everything they could need. But my son's mother and I split when he was four, then starting at five, he never got along with my daughter's mother, and my daughter's mother and I split when she was nine. Our daughter didn't take it well. My son however, took it well, but then, he hadn't taken it well when his mother and I split up. Like me he was stubborn and didn't let up on the hope of his mother and I reuniting until he was in this early teens.
Frankly, my daughter's mother was an angel to him the first couple of years, She tried hard, but he consistently rejected her, and she was not one to suffer rejection well. After all that time, she finally couldn't take it anymore and started treating him rather horribly. Of course he didn't realize it, neither did I, not completely, not till he got older and told me and we had hours of talks, year after year.
I thought my daughter was okay back then, but after the divorce, she receded to an imaginary world which got worse until it morphed into something else. She got depressed, and went the full gamut of mental ill health around tenth grade. It was at the beginning of that when I realized that my son was not doing as well as I had thought. In his commiserating with his sister, in order to help her, I found out what was going on with him. Where I discovered she was into "cutting", he had been too, but further, he was into scarification. Kids do this in places you don't normally see, and become expert at hiding it.
So, why am I writing this? I'm doing it for the benefit of other parents. Because even though my background said to me that I should have known about this kind of thing, I didn't. I felt as if I were suddenly thrust into the environment on Mars, it was so unfamiliar to me, not to mention, I couldn't relate to what was going on with my kids on a personal level. In my view as a child, it was me against the world, I would survive, I never considered doing myself harm (well, suicide occurred to me a few times but never seriously, just as an acceptance of all my options to get out of situations I had no idea how to extract myself from, that being, my home life.
This is why I'm sharing this. In the hopes that maybe someone else will not be so "blindsided". Basically, when you find your own kids going through things like this, pay attention, take it seriously, and do something, make drastic changes if need be. I was lucky, both my kids now are happy and healthy and living as adults and enjoying what life has to offer. But for a while there, I wasn't too sure I would one day be in this situation. And I'm grateful.
You see, I have a degree in Psychology from a University with a great Psych program. That being said, I didn't go into counseling, I studied ironically, in the division of "Awareness and Reasoning" and I focused on Phenomenology. I have an above average IQ, for what that's worth. I'm a good person, I like to think, and so I've been told, and as well that I'm a good parent, told that by friends, friends of my kids and my kids (as adults).
I always tried to be involved in my kids' lives. Far more than many parent's from what I've heard. And in ways where other parents are intrusive to the kids' lives, I wasn't. I watched my kids carefully, or so I thought. When they rode around the block, I was there watching them. They thought they were on a grand adventure, but I was trailing them covertly. If someone had stopped to drag them into a car, there would have been yet another damaged pedophile laid up in the hospital under arrest, I assure you. And that was how I went about raising them. I tried to be intrusive into their lives, unobtrusively.
I thought I was doing everything, well, fairly correctly.
Then I found out about "cutting" behavior. If you don't know about this, kids cut their skin with sharp objects in order to "feel" something, or release endorphins to ease the pain of, "reality"? Or, for whatever reason. When I found this out, I couldn't understand this. I couldn't understand how my kids could have all these problems, when their home life really wasn't that bad. Yes, there was mental duress that I would have preferred they didn't have to go through, life situations that kids never should have to experience (divorce), but most kids have to learn to persevere through various types of mental duress, otherwise, we aren't raising them to deal with the real world as adults. Someone once said, that child-rearing is "creative phobia building". So true.
When I was four we moved to Spain. After a huge fight, my parents broke up and we moved to the East Coast. My mother met a guy, married him, had a kid (rather quickly) and when I was five, we moved back to Tacoma.
I knew, at four years old, that I didn't like my new step father to be. He was scary, odd, and simply wasn't my dad. I can understand some of what my son went through with my daughter's mother. She was the sweetest most beautiful girl, but he saw that dark spot waiting to come out from inside her. And it was there, and it came out.
Through the years after my mother married my step-father, from time to time he would terrorize me. He yelled at me constantly, I always felt I was in his way, and I was always in fear of pissing him off (again, probably similar to what my son went through with my daughter's mom). My mother used to tell me that he was that way because he was jealous of me. I never understood why, I was a kid, he was her husband. He didn't treat my sister that way. He didn't treat his own flesh and blood son that way. So I was under a lot of stress growing up. Add to that, ADHD which developed into ADD over time.
We moved every year. I never had friends for more than a year. Most the times wherever we moved to had friends my older sister's age, or my younger brother's age, but never my age. I was lonely. I was alone among my family. I was always in trouble and could never figure out why. I was horrible in school, it was misery. If something interested me, I got good grades, but little interested me. Life outside the window at school interested me. But they would have these experimental educational programs that fascinated me and were my saving grace, like the SRA Reading Laboratory (Scientific Research Associates, Inc.).
In seventh grade I left public school to join my little brother in his Catholic school experience. It was a nightmare for me. I'd never been picked on to that degree. For example, one day the boys in the last, graduating eighth grade class, surrounded me in a circle with a basketball and proceeded to throw the ball at my head, repeatedly, until my head hurt so badly I walked off the school grounds and headed home. I told my mother, she told the school.
Yet, nothing happened about that incident. And that was only one of many, albeit, the worst example, possibly vying for equal status with at least one other incident that involved my family and was the final straw and lead me to literally beating the hell out of one kid who attacked me in front of my mother and little brother.
My experience at a school where I was required to be a "good student" because they only had good students there, was so bad, that I decided to go back to public school. I had gotten into so many fights in Catholic school that for the rest of my K-12 career (9th-12th), I had a reputation that helped protect me, because of the other kids at that school who also didn't go to the next step, that being, Bellermine Catholic Preparatory School.
And yet, I survived it. With no thoughts of doing harm to myself, after all, myself, was the one I was trying to get through this nightmare called childhood.
Anything new and different, I volunteered for it.
Still, Life for me was stress. Too much stress for any kid. At school were bullies, I was smaller than normal until about tenth grade when I shot up a few inches, lost some weight and suddenly, girls were very interested after a lifetime of being ignored or annoying. I had to take most classes that I knew I wouldn't understand. Home life was a step-parent who hated me and I would have to hide from.
By the time I hit twelfth grade, I had a nervous breakdown in the form of a migraine that put me in the hospital. Three neuro surgeons on consult said I either needed to move out, or deal with it, or take drugs (this was subtext). They gave me a prescription to Valiums and sent me home. A few months later I graduated, I had a job set up, and I moved out. Life was good.
Why do I bring this up? Because, I never cut myself. I thought about blowing my brains out a couple of times, but really, I didn't think of suicide. I was too busy being "Me against the World" (or my parents). I had a loving mother, but she was kind of wacko. I figured (after I grew up) that if you have one bastard of a parent, it's very important that the other parent be as caring and loving as possible, so I always tried to fulfill that role. Research I read as a parent indicated that if you have a father who is involved with the child, especially a boy, you have a good chance at turning around even a kid who is seriously headed for the judicial system.
My home life was worse than my kids' home life in so many ways, and fractured in so many others. So, how come my kids turned self destructive and I wasn't?
Why, has been bugging me for years now. I've been through all this with psychiatrists, mental health care workers, suicide watch counselors and so on. But it wasn't until just now that I had an epiphany. I was watching a movie, a comedy (a ComDram really) "It's Kind of a Funny Story" with Zack Galifianakis about a kid (Keir Gilchrist) who admits himself to a hospital fearing suicide and it all takes place in 3 North of the Hospital. "3 North", I remember that kind of designation from my daughter being in the hospital for similar reasons, fear of wanting to kill herself.
Fear. So much of what my kids had was fear based. Sounds stupid, right? Like, how'd you NOT know that? Well, I knew they were afraid of something but couldn't figure out why. I couldn't figure out where fear came into play. Anger, sure. Bitterness, maybe. But, fear? We worked hard to keep fear out of their life. But when one of the parents is either bi polar or has a multiple personality disorder, no matter how professionally they have learned how to manage it (though have hid it so well, know one knows about it), the kids are going to have fear, if not about their parent, then about the fear of inconsistency, a real child killer.
Then it hit me. My kids had been protected. They really had nothing to physically fear. Mental abuse, maybe. My son got "brow beat" by my daughter's mother all the time. There were a few instances of her physically accosting him, a few of which I had to step and stop (you had to be there to understand), which may have been worse, as I understand it now, when I wasn't around. But then, my son has exaggerated his memories at times. He has claimed things that didn't happen, or weren't as bad at all as how he describes them, which I know because I was there.
But that doesn't explain our daughter, right? She got the mental side (after her and her mother moved out and we divorced), but not until Junior High. I do well in dealing with older kids, like 7th grade on; her mother was a wizard with younger kids, where I was helpless (useless?). It seems to me that once a kid hits 4th or 5th grade, she doesn't much want anything to do with them.
So, it was like my daughter, after being a "beautiful baby" since birth and getting constantly showered with attention from friends, family and strangers, once she hit late grade school and into Junior High, did not get as much attention anymore. Her mother and I split up when she was in 6th grade and so I didn't see her on a daily basis. I wanted to see her more, or have her full time, but her mother didn't want that to be (or at all if she'd had her way), and my job had a four hour a day commute, which kept me from having her full time.
But then her mother didn't have the time for her either really. Feeling that she wasn't a baby anymore, I suppose, she gave her less attention than she was ever used to; but you can't do that, and I warned her about that, considering our daughter's history. You see, that is how you create "beautiful baby syndrome".
I saw my little brother go through the same kind of thing and then, though I doubt it was related, he died of liver cancer at fifteen. So when my daughter hit High School, it was almost like something in her brain said, "I have to get attention to make up for all that I should have, and haven't, gotten." She deserved it and she got it, on 24 hour suicide watch one week until I could (I could) get her into a Youth Inpatient Facility and then visiting her every day in another town, until she got let out. I stopped seeing her every day at her request as she progressed and though I felt disconnected from her, I knew it meant she was doing better.
Our brains have a way of trying to fix what's wrong, when they deem there is an imbalance. You have to understand that. The "Cowboy Up" attitude her mother had, is completely dysfunctional with children at some point, and you have to recognize that. On the day we interred her, I watched her mother push her into a catatonic, nearly suicidal state, in harassing her at a time when you simply shouldn't do that. She couldn't see what she was doing and that, was the problem in how we had gotten here, if you ask me. It seemed obvious to me, I know it was to our daughter, and it eventually was to the staff there.
Okay, so here's the deal. My kids always had us around. Everything they did was carefully supervised either by their us, other parents, Aunts, Uncles, or Grandparents. They were controlled, protected, watched over. Perhaps, too much?
I on the other hand... well, I started Karate in late grade school, I fought in Karate tournaments, in fact the first two ever International Open Karate Tournaments in the Pacific NorthWest, in Seattle in 1967 and 68. Fighting a tournament, is fear invoking. Trust me. Then I got into search and rescue with the Civil Air Patrol. I flew in small planes. I landed my first plane in 8th grade.
I was crazy about guns. So my mother called the Police and they suggested a local kid's rifle club. As a kid in Junior High, I got to do things that only adults usually got to do. If my mother had known the kind of training I was getting up in the mountains with the C.A.P. (a great organization and an Auxiliary of the US Air Force), for a weekend or a week at a time, she'd have had a heart attack. In tenth grade at 15, I got my SCUBA diving license. I took myself sky diving at 17 when I found out I could go without my parent's permission; my mother had previously said, "NO."
Okay, here's my point. I did things as a kid that taught me how to deal with my fears. I was put in situations where it was me against things trying to kill me (like gravity, ignorance, darkness and remoteness of the Cascade Mountains). My kids didn't have that. My daughter has her mother's "fear nothing" and "balls to the wall" genetics and attitude from working with horses all their lives. Her mother is a tough individual and I've seen her throw around a 1500 pound horse that was being snippy, and not taking any crap off of it whatsoever. Our daughter is her mother's child. My son has my genetics of perseverance, stubbornness and toughness. Both kids are highly intelligent. That's not just my opinion, it's a matter of official documentation.
But both of them have trouble with emotional issues. The kind of strength of character and courage it takes in facing down a horse, they can both do; that's one thing. Facing down social and unknown fear invoking situations, however, was an entirely different kind of thing (they have since grown through that).
But that, was my epiphany. I had been trained, in one way or another how to deal with fear. I always thought I was a rather fearful individual. I was fearful of going into my parent's dark quarter basement, into young adulthood. But someone had told me as a kid that when you are afraid, you always have to face your fear down or it will take control of you. I took that to heart and I told my kids about that. It didn't hit them quite as hard as it had me.
So I spent most of the first part of my life in fear. But while I was in that fear, I was either shooting a gun (safely), hanging from a rope off of a cliff, stunt jumping my bike; or later backpacking in the Cascade or Olympics alone, SCUBA diving alone (don't do this at home, kids), jumping out of a plane, racing a car (in high school), or something dangerous, taking it to the edge (why I pursued adrenalin oriented, death defying activities, is another issue not for here). What I didn't realize then was the fear I was feeling, was being managed. It was just that I felt like a coward all the time, because I was experiencing fear a lot. But while I was doing this, I was achieving things, I was winning over those fears.
They say that courage is being afraid, yet doing what you need to do, anyway.
It wasn't until years later when I told people things I had done that I realized it wasn't normal and that people were fearful of things I had done to the point that they wouldn't do them; yet I would do them and do them again, fearful, or not.
The two fears I've never really won over, were a fear of heights and fear of women in certain areas. I know a number of women who would find that hard to believe; but it's not once you have the green light from a girl that I've had issues with, it's getting past that initial point to get that green light. Dancing, I've never been good with, though I have gotten praise for when I had danced. I just never liked being watched and when I danced I felt like everyone was watching my every move. I think that tends to happen to kids with ADHD. As a child you consistently embarrassed your parents, and so they cracked down on you for your behavior. You either fight that being disciplined (as my cousin Jeff did and was in trouble all through school) and have massive trouble growing up, or you try to blend in and you acquire a lot of smaller fears (as I did).
But this is about my kids and my epiphany about their situation. So now that we know this, what good is it? How does this help, you?
For one thing, have your kids doing things to help them manage their fears, to educate them on how to deal with and get around fear. Not yelling at your son who's afraid of playing football and getting creamed, but teaching him how to do it, to understand it, to know what to do, when and why to do it, building him (or her) up to it and most importantly, to have fun.
So, it seems to me it is all about fear because of a lack of doing things, due to being overly protected. America has become so damn Politically Correct, it's obnoxious. In doing this, we have made our youth weak. They need to fall off their bike, have someone call them names and bear with it and progress forward, not hide and shrivel beneath the weight of outside attacks. The real world is harsh, childhood, has to have some of that, but in the right ways to give them the tools they need, not take those tools away or hide them completely from them.
We have over protected our kids today so that they don't get a chance to do some of the stuff American kids have been doing for a couple of hundred years. Consider that you are not really protecting your kids sometimes, you are protecting them against getting hurt physically to be sure, but not emotionally. Kids need muscle, not fat. Look around, how many fat kids are there? Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually?
It's looking to me like we need to protect them against emotional harm even more than the physical. And giving everyone a trophy in T ball, simply isn't it. I'm not a fan of competition as I've been destroyed by it (another story, another time). But kids have to fail, we learn so much from failure. But as a parent you have to teach them how to learn from it, and not be destroyed by it.
So, think about it. If your kid is cutting, or a similar behavior, ask yourself, "how did you train them into that behavior?" Don't feel guilty, don't feel overly responsible because none of us know what we're doing raising kids. Because remember, if you do what is right for one kid, and apply that to another kid, you may make them completely out of control. Raising kids is a dance, it's all about reacting to that specific child. There is no cookie cutter method. Child-rearing too, is a fearful thing to do. Luckily, we can make a lot of mistakes and still turn out good kids; but there is a line and that line shifts with each child and each situation, home life, parents, siblings, friends, family, location, culture, etc.
But parents don't grow up wanting to commit suicide by raising their kids wrong. Kids however, do.
This has all been kind of heavy. We do the best we can in life, for our kids. It's hard to know what to do all of the time. None of us are perfect though some of us like to act like we are, or that we know everything. Let your kids see you don't have all the answers in life, and how you go about dealing with that. Let them see you make the occasional mistakes, and how you go on from there.
My ex thought you never let kids see those things and once my kids grew up, they thanked me for that, because it gave them hope to realize, though they weren't perfect, neither were we as parents, and yet, life goes on.
To help put it in perspective, allow me to give an example through an anecdote someone gave me (and I don't know its origin) and that I've altered....
A Nun was seated next to a little girl about twelve years old, who was reading a very old book on animals and History. They were on an airplane about to take off. The Nun turned to girl and said,
"Wouldn't you like to have a conversation with me? Flights do go so much quicker if you strike up a conversation with another passenger."
The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger,
"What would you want to talk about?"
"Oh, I don't know," said the Nun smiling,"maybe we could talk about God's Divine plan for us; or what Heaven might be like since we are after all, flying up into the skies; or perhaps, about life after death?"
"Kind of heavy for talking to a kid about, don't you think, Lady? But okay," she said, "those could be interesting topics, but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff, grass. Yet a deer secretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, a "cow pie", but a horse produces droppings in clumps. Why do you suppose that is?"
Amused, the Nun visibly impressed by the little girl's intelligence. she thinks about it and responds with,
"Hmmm, I really have no idea, my dear."
To which the little girl replied,
"Then do you really feel qualified to discuss God, Heaven, or life after death, when you obviously don't know crap?" And went back to reading her book, "On the Origin of the Species".