Family

Suicide and What It Means for Your Family

Above all else, we must give kids a strong inner core

Recently, our 21-year-old son called to say that a new transfer to his university had committed suicide. Tragically, this was not our son’s first experience with a peer’s suicide.

When we’re actively involved in our kids’ lives, we will be in a position to gauge the world around them.

During 10th grade, a boy had taken a shotgun and blown his head off right after school. Suicide now ranks as the second leading cause of death for kids ages 15 to 24 — and just as scary, it is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14.

Each day in our nation, there are an estimated 5,000 suicide attempts, with four out of five teens giving some kind of warning signs to the adults around them. Why are parents missing those signs? And how do parents raise kids who will not break in the face of the brokenness all around them?

It is obvious there are many variables to young suicides — some of which are beyond our control as parents. What is in our control, however, is the absolute core sense of love, value, and belonging we give to our children when we don’t give up on our priorities. And one of a parent’s greatest priorities is that our kids learn who they are and whose they are from us — not from the world, which changes its expectations like a buzz saw, not from their equally vulnerable and insecure friends, not from their resume-building activities at school, and not from a hyped media. From us.

Our kids derive their security from us as they develop a sense of being loved. Kids take their identity from their families first. At the same time, children begin to understand their role in this world even when they come to grips with the fact that neither they, nor we, are at its center.

Given the challenges of 21st-century parenting, a stable home is not a given. It takes vision and enduring love and patience to sustain families through stressful times. The good news is that there exist certain core truths that will sustain us through the toughest of times. While these truths are clear and to many may seem obvious, the reality is that to walk the walk is not easy nor is it quick. This is a sticking point for many parents who do not view time as their friend. Under pressure from juggling too many balls in the air, many parents take the short view and sacrifice those essential ingredients that bring order and stability to our families.

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When we are actively involved the lives of our kids, we will be in a position to gauge the world around them. It was eye-opening to listen to my son’s view of why his peer committed suicide in the 10th grade, and to contrast his view with that of my friend who knew the boy’s family well.

My friend said, “Oh, what a shock. She was such a good mother. Even though she worked full time, she was sure to call him at home every day at 4.” My son said, “Although I did not know him well, I knew he was mocked because he stuttered and he had no real friends. He was really lonely.” This boy came home every day to an empty house with electronics as his comfort, his friend, and his entertainment.

Don’t think I am going after the mom — this whole scenario begs the question of: Where was the dad? Parents cannot be the last to know. We have to be the first. That only comes with being profligate of our time within our families.

A question a Palo Alto mom recently asked in a piece about the suicide epidemic in that town has haunted me for the past several days. This mom asked, “What is the difference between the teenager who killed himself and my kid? Nothing. There is no safe space. My kids could be next.”

We lived in Palo Alto for 10 years with our four children, and I cannot help but think that our family’s vision was the same one we have now: Our home is our kids’ safe place. I know that a growing number of parents don’t share this view. Our daughter’s friend had parents who sat her and her brother down and blithely announced, “Gee, kids, we have a problem here. We are getting a divorce, and neither one wants to take either one of you.” One child ended up with a grandmother, and the other went to boarding school.

When I hear “it takes a village,” I have to ask — what village? Many grandparents live too far to be a daily presence in kids’ lives and many adults just don’t want the responsibility of having kids in their homes.

Our homes have to be our kids’ safe place — not just for our own kids but also for their friends. There are fewer adults in our children’s world who have the time to open their homes to be a fun, safe place for the kids. It’s a reality that is having a detrimental impact on our kids’ social lives — and one that is being underreported.

When I hear “it takes a village,” I have to ask — what village? Many grandparents live too far to be a daily presence in our children’s lives and many adults just don’t want the responsibility of having kids in their homes, especially when they are working and cannot supervise. I have worked hard to open our home to my kids’ friends because it is clear that many of children’s friends just don’t have a place to hang out. It’s a little thing but it does make a difference.

Coming from broken homes ourselves prepared my husband, Gregory, and myself for the reality that we had better not depend on just hopes and dreams to create what our parents could not. Hope alone rarely get you where you want to go. In the Bible, there is a verse so relevant for modern families: Without vision, the people they perish (Proverbs 29:18).

Families require vision.

My husband and I have gone through tough times with each and every one of our kids. Quite of a few of these issues have taken years to resolve. That’s called life. When I wrote a book on mothering, I subtitled it, “Raising Whole Children in a Broken Generation,” because I wanted to humbly tackle the tough questions every 21st-century mom is confronting.

Related: If You Think Your Teen is Considering Suicide

No one I know is getting a free pass. I have to be humble because I have made many mistakes. But while perfection has eluded me, love has not. And because I want to be practical, I think it is important for couples to sit down together at regular intervals, take stock and communicate what their vision is (individually and jointly), and how that vision will impact the future.

Gregory and I have a journal we started when we were married, and we’ve kept it up. As soon as the kids were old enough, we asked them to participate in shaping our family vision. It is critical in this confusing and contradictory world to communicate to and with our children a greater purpose to the lives. Families are one piece to that greater purpose.

With suicides becoming a tragic solution for too many of our kids as they confront the challenges of life, we have to focus on building  their inner core. My own mom survived the horrors of a German concentration camp with no thought of suicide.  As a society, we focus too much on material things — but it really is the intangible that gives life its meaning.

Many of our kids are asking, “What’s the point?” And that is a great question, because in families we can explore the answers and the point. Guiding our son through the process of understanding why his peers took their lives has driven home the importance of his knowing who — and whose — he is.

Marina Slayton is the author of several books, including “Be the Best Mom You Can Be: A Practical Guide to Raising Whole Children in a Broken Generation.” She co-writes a column with her husband, Gregory, for The Christian Post and lives in New York City.  

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