When One Teen Suicide Turns Into A Cluster

Over winter break a child at my daughter’s school died by suicide. Grief counseling was offered.

Within one month on January 22, 2018 a girl was found dead in a nearby park by suicide. She was 13.

Only five days later a child in another nearby town died by suicide. His final notes to family, friends and his school were made public. The principal made a plea to parents to change that was widely promoted on social media.

Within nine days of the last local suicide we received news that yet another young man from my daughter’s school took his life.

That’s four local suicides within six weeks. Any loss of life is a tragedy. But when there are multiple suicides in a close vicinity within a short period of time it’s known as a cluster. And clusters among teens are particularly dangerous because they often produce the spread of suicide. There is a very delicate balance that is needed to honor the person who was lost and provide the family support. Communities need to be extremely mindful that doing so can often be in direct opposition of what is needed to control the cluster, namely, not romanticizing the child, glorifying the death or sensationalizing the situation.

Grief counselors are always on hand to offer support after a school death. That’s the first point the principal puts out there to allay fears of kids suffering from the trauma of losing a friend. But that is clearly not nearly enough.

Last year when 13 Reasons Why was released nearly every school was prompted to talk about suicide. Some schools advised parents to tell their kids to avoid watching the show. I advised something different. Other schools did a suicide awareness programs. But again, none of it is enough. Parents, teachers, school districts, colleges and society at large need to make vital changes to make sure kids have a chance to enjoy their childhoods and make it to adulthood.

Here’s what we need to do individually and collectively to keep our kids from thinking suicide is a viable option to end their problems:

Parents and schools must stop putting ever-present pressure on kids to succeed at all costs. The societal emphasis on college and getting into the absolute best one as a vital means to life success and happiness is incredibly misguided and untrue. Heavy course loads with multiple AP classes and hours of homework all while also doing extra-curricular sports, tutoring, chores, and volunteering is killing our kids (literally and figuratively). Meanwhile, mental illness concerns are skyrocketing among teens and college kids. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, I don’t care where my kids go to college or even if they go. I know that is easier said than done but saying it brings it closer to reality. What’s more important is for my kids to find a way to make a living doing something they enjoy. My kids know this clearly. Do yours?

Schools need to stop sending grades to parents on a daily basis. It takes the ownership away from kids and further gives parents one more avenue to overreach into their children’s lives. It adds emphasis on the importance of every minute assignment and almost begs parents to discuss each grade with their kids. In response kids start worrying intensely about disappointing their parents. Many a childhood suicide can be traced to children anxious that one mistake will so heavily upset their parents that they view death as a preferable outcome. Take that in for a second.

Teach kids that perfect is a fallacy and even the idea of striving to be at least closer to perfection should not be the goal. Parents say they don’t expect their kids to be perfect. But their actions convey a different message. Just watch the sidelines of any youth sporting event. Parents tend to provide an endless stream of advice on how to play and improve the game or performance. There is absolutely no fun in that. Children often continue to play to please their parents (and because it looks good on college applications) or they drop out. Either way, the message is clear: be better, do better. When kids come home with a 95 many parents ask (sometimes even jokingly), “What happened to the other 5 points?” Stop doing that.

Schools need crisis intervention plans as well as prophylactic plans for addressing suicide. Playing catch up offering suicide hotlines and providing grief counselors is not enough. School and communities need to know how to respond if and when a suicide occurs. Days after a recent suicide a well-meaning coach published the suicide letters on his blog. He was asking for parents to read the letters and think about how to make changes to support children better. He too was grieving. But what he didn’t know was that those letters would also be seen by young people. They would be confusing to read and incredibly thought provoking. And worst of all, highly inflammatory in terms of glorifying suicide. I’m deeply saddened but not at all surprised that another suicide happened days later. At this point I only know there is a correlation between these two events, not causation. But training and research make me fear that sharing those letters did more harm than good. Information disseminated on a regular basis to parents, kids and teachers about teenage suicide, why it happens, how to prevent it and how to handle it if it does occur it would prevent some mishandling and minimize the risk of a cluster forming.

Parents need to make the assumption their kids are exposed to drugs, alcohol, vaping, sex, porn, violence, social isolation, bullying and much more. Social media, cell phones, access to the internet and the 24-hour news cycle have taken away parents’ ability to shield their children from information that may be harmful. Kids don’t always possess the maturity to handle what they are exposed to. Often even the most conscientious parents have no clue what is going on for kids behind closed doors and on disappearing snapchats. Make a point of talking to kids regularly (weekly) about important issues even if you think it doesn’t affect your kids. Talk to your kids even if they don’t talk back. Talk in the car, over dinner or at night with the lights out before bed. Text these conversations if that’s the only way. Have the conversations before you think you have to. Your kids are going through so much more than you think. Get in there and help them.

Love your kid no matter what. That sounds obvious but it needs to be said. Love your kid despite his F on the important science test. Love you kid although she was caught smoking pot in the bathroom. Love your kid even though she is gay or lesbian or trans or not even sure. Love your kid when you find out she’s been promiscuous and might be pregnant. Don’t just say it. Show your kids that you may not love their actions but you love them. Show them that they should not fear a nuclear meltdown if they tell you bad news. Make sure they know that there is nothing that they should view as the end of the world. Tell them and show them with your action.

Learn more about suicide and how to prevent it at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Book Promotion #1

Almost three years ago I had an idea for a book. I’d been thinking about writing a book for many years but no idea seemed like the right one. Then I realized there were two words I said over and over again when working with families.

Parents would ask:

What should I do when my kid gets up out of time out? Ignore it!

What should I do when my teen curses at me? Ignore it!

How can I get my toddler to stop throwing food? Ignore it!

What can I do get my son to stop making annoying noises?

Tapping his pencil?

Fidgeting in his seat?

Whining?

Complaining?

Tantrumming?

Negotiating?

Ignore it all.

The advice I was repeatedly giving was to ignore all of the annoying and undesirable behaviors children present on a regular basis. I know about a concept in psychology called extinction which states that behavior that isn’t reinforced disappears. So when parents stop providing attention or benefits for a particular behavior is just goes away. It’s a really simple but powerful parenting tool.

But as simple as it seems I knew from experience that many parents struggled with implementation. So that’s where Ignore It! comes in. The book helps parents know what to ignore, how to ignore and when never to ignore behavior. It also provides general parenting tips about dealing with time outs, parenting in public, and how to enforce logical practical consequences when ignoring isn’t appropriate. I also included loads of scenarios from my practice to show how Ignore It! changes behavior and helps parents enjoy their kids more.

In just 70 days the book will be available for sale in bookstores and online. I’m so excited I can hardly sleep. In order to get the word out about the book I’m offering a great pre-order incentive. Order before 8/8/17, send me proof or post to Twitter or Facebook, and I’ll send you a bonus chapter I wrote but decided not to include in the book. The bonus chapter is all about how to resolve sleep issues. I’ll also include my Sleep Cheat Sheet that details sleep needs for newborns to teenagers.

Thanks in advance for the support and I can’t wait to hear how the book is helping your family.

If you would like to get our newsletter with more promotions and parenting tips in your inbox sign up here.

I Quit: 8 Tasks I am No Longer Doing For My Children

Photo by Jason M. Volack

I’m going on strike. I mean it. I’m done with hands-on mothering. Not because I dislike being a mom. I love being a mom but I loathe being a maid. Do this. Do that. Pick this up. Pick that up. I used to be “Mommy.” Now I’m “Hey, Lady with the Frying Pan—Can You Come Over Here and Take Care of This Mess. Oh, Then Make Me a Smoothie.” No, no, no. My kids are taking advantage of me—just as your children are taking advantage of you. So here’s a list of eight things I will no longer do for my kids. Take my advice or you’re on your own.

1. Reverse shirts and socks that are inside out in the laundry. Right behind Dengue Fever and Cicadas on my list of the world’s greatest ills. When I take my clothes off, I make certain everything remains right side in. Know why? Because folding laundry is bad enough without having any extra work. Since I am a Shirt Reversing Cyborg, sent here from the future to solve all laundry horrors, my kids have no idea that I’ve been reversing their shirts and pants for 4,384 consecutive days. Well, I’m done. If they don’t want to wear clothes inside out they can reverse it themselves. Take that little laundry makers!

2. Empty their lunch boxes. Making lunches is nearly as annoying as reversing the laundry. Actually, it’s worse because at least while folding laundry I can watch the Real Housewives of Wherever. Making lunch sucks. It sucks on the first day of school (when the lunch box is clean and new and still smells of Target), it sucks on the last day of school (when the lunch box is moldy and nasty and smells like a mutilated turkey). First you have to dig out the box from 321 pounds of book bag nonsense. Then you have to empty yesterday’s casualties of uneaten lunch refugee—half a slice of ham, two squished grapes, something that looks like Colonel Sanders’ beard. Then you have to pack it all over again, thereby guaranteeing a future of more sad remnants of lunches gone uneaten. Starting now, if my kids don’t come home and empty their lunch boxes, they’ll either A. Go hungry or B. Nibble on the beard thing.

3. Tell them what is weather appropriate. This one is simple. I am not in their bodies, and therefore cannot tell if they are cold or hot. If my kid doesn’t want to wear a jacket, so be it. There are lessons to be learned from both freezing and sweating your ass off. After that, without a word from me, they will know exactly what to wear.

4. Put their clothes in the hamper. I have almost an involuntary tic. When I enter my children’s rooms I subtly—without even knowing it—put their clothes in the laundry basket. The dirty items just keep coming like an assembly line that never turns off. There’s a 75 percent chance my kids could not identify their laundry baskets in a police lineup. But they will as soon as they run out of clean clothing

5. Tell them to brush their hair. I stopped brushing my daughter’s hair years ago. But the pestering on my part never ended. Inevitably her hair turns into a beehive due to lack of quality brushing, and it takes forever to comb it out. From now on if she decides not to take good care of her hair she will learn about what happens to girls who’s hair is permanently knotted. Hello Edward Scissor Hands. I’ll have to cut it off. That’ll show her.

6. Clear their dishes from the table. My kids think I’m Alice from Mel’s diner. I cook. They sit and eat. Then they retreat to their evening activities while I clear the table as the family waitress. That is ridiculous. If they can use a fork and a knife, they can clear the table. And if they don’t, I at least want 20 percent in tips.

7. Bring to school their ______ that was accidentally left at home. OK, people make mistakes and children are certainly entitled to make a few. But I feel like some sort of drug mule every time I schlep back to school to drop off a left violin or homework paper or fitness log or lunch box. Bottom line: If I tell you to pack an apple, and you forget to pack the apple, that’s on you, Junior.

8. What to wear for picture day. True story: My son had Picture Day a week ago. He came down in the morning wearing a Robert Griffith III Washington Redskins jersey we had picked up at Marshall’s for $9.99. I shrugged. Hey, if that’s how you’d like your fourth grade year to be preserved—forever and ever and ever—who am I to argue? I’ll laugh alongside your children when they start mocking you for it.

Invitation for Principal to Take My Daughter Shopping

Dear Middle School Administrators:

Thank you for sending a note home for the second day in a row to say my daughter was dressed inappropriately for school. I’d like to offer an additional thank you for forcing her to change into large mesh shorts that have been worn by only god knows who and potentially never washed.

To reward you for treating my daughter with such concern, I am cordially inviting you to take my daughter shopping.

Here are the specifications you have to work with. I wish you loads of luck.

She is 5’7” and 13 years old. Built more like her father, she has exceptionally long legs and arms.

She doesn’t like anything pink or purple or frilly.

She won’t wear pants because she gets overheated easily. Trust me I’ve seen this. It will cause a scene in the school yard.

She absolutely will not wear a dress either.

No item of clothing can have a logo visible because to her that’s not cool. She will however, wear any type of superhero, Green Day or USFL T-shirt if you can find them. You might be able to try for an occasional Beatles reference but that’s touch and go.

Now, don’t forget that you will have to find something in the stores that also meets with your dress code requirements. Here are the tricky areas that are most difficult to avoid. As per your policy she cannot wear tank tops. Shorts and skirts must not extend to the end of the fingertips (This is a toughie.)

So, if I were you (and I’m glad I’m not) I’d focus on the shorts first. She has very long fingers which seems to make finding shorts that won’t get her sent to the principal’s office impossible (On the bright side the piano teacher says those fingers are an asset.). I’d schedule a few afternoons and weekends for this endeavor. I can tell you from experience that just heading to the mall, Target and the outlets won’t cut it. Not much for her there. I’ve already checked.

One last point: please try to stay within a reasonable budget. We can’t spend a fortune on her wardrobe. She is still growing after all.

I thank you endlessly for taking on this chore. What a relief for me.

Sincerely,

Sick Of The Dress Code Mom

P.S. I forgot to thank you for making it clear to my daughter that her body is somehow a distraction, either to herself or to the boys. I thought she might have missed the message earlier in the year when the gym teacher told her she couldn’t wear yoga pants because the boys aren’t able to control themselves. I appreciate how hard you are working to drive the point home.

My Daughter Can’t Wear Yoga Pants Because Teacher Says Boys Can’t Handle It

My Daughter Can’t Wear Yoga Pants Because Teacher Says Boys Can’t Handle It

dress code violation examples

On the middle school website the stated purpose “for student dress and grooming standards is to foster an educational environment.” Except at back to school night I heard a different story from the gym teacher. The presentation started out predictably dull. The kids were slated for hockey (wow!) and football (ooh!) and soccer (fantastic!) and, oh, the female gym teacher almost forgot to mention—girls were not permitted to wear yoga pants or leggings, because it might cause the boys to spring an erection.

Whoa. What?

Yes, you read that correctly. My daughter, barely 13, cannot wear yoga pants or leggings in gym, because some kid might be aroused. The teacher elaborated. She said boys this age had a difficult time controlling themselves. They could be stirred by the sight of a girl in exercise pants in exercise class. The resulting erection could be embarrassing. Hence, in order to prevent this type of humiliation for the boys the gym teacher required the girls put shorts over their exercise pants.

It all happened so fast. Did I actually hear the teacher correctly? After class I went back to speak with her again. She clarified. Well, she tried to clarify, as one tries to dig her way from a pile of quicksand. She told me one of the reasons this is an issue is because she requires the students to tuck in their shirts, you know, to be respectful. She believes when the girls have their shirts tucked in, wearing yoga pants, it’s just too revealing for the boys. Got it?

Um, no. I do not. In fact, I am horrified.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the girls all wore miniskirts that barely covered their rears, and the boys still managed to graduate. Walk on to any college campus today and one spots students wearing yoga pants, sweatpants and even pajamas to class. Somehow an educational environment is still maintained. The male students find a way to suppress any possible sexual feelings while in the classroom because it would be inappropriate otherwise.

Yet middle and high school dress codes are popping up with reckless abandon around the country. Girls can’t wear tank tops or spaghetti straps on dresses. Skirts need to be no shorter than fingertip length. Just fire off a quick Google search, and you’ll be startled by the number of schools limiting what girls—but often not boys—can wear. It’s happening in Kentucky. It’s in Texas. And in Indiana. And in Oregon. The girls in New Jersey were so fed up with the insinuation that they are a disruption they created the Twitter hashtag #Iammorethanadistraction.

Why is there a sudden problem with clothing being so terribly distracting in school?

The objectification of a woman’s body is pervasive in our culture. I don’t know of a single woman who hasn’t experienced cat calling, unwanted whistling, fear of being followed, sexual harassment or sexual assault. A national poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015 reported that 25 percent of women attending college experienced unwanted sexual incidents. The problem isn’t that we aren’t creating an educational environment in school. It’s that we aren’t teaching boys and young men that women are not sexual beings first and foremost.

Banning yoga pants for the purpose of avoiding unwanted erections sends the message that boys are programmed to respond and can’t help what their bodies do. Boys and men are responsible for their actions. It’s no wonder some don’t stop unwanted sexual advances when they hear a woman saying, “No.” Short skirts and leggings don’t cause sexual advances—the inability to manage one’s desires does.

Instead of draconian dress codes what we really need are conduct codes. Enough with stifling the girls to help the boys control themselves. That’s demeaning to the boys as much as it is to the girls. Why not state the expectation that on school grounds any sexual activity or expression will not be tolerated. Children can learn to control themselves when there are clear expectations for how to behave with consequences for misconduct.

It isn’t the responsibility of my daughter (or any daughter) to help boys manage sexual urges. It is the responsibility of the boys. It isn’t OK to start shaming girls about their bodies by telling them to obsessively cover up. And girls should not have to disregard their own comfort to protect the comfort of the boys around them.

I came home from back-to-school night and discussed the gym teacher’s remarks with a male friend. He thought I shouldn’t have told my daughter the reason she couldn’t wear yoga pants. I disagree, strongly. Girls need women to break down these issues when they are young, before they are shamed or harassed or raped. It’s one step closer to showing girls that wearing a short skirt isn’t akin to asking for “it”. I need to show my daughter what saying no looks like. And I need to help change this policy so she can see what change looks like.

Shielding my daughter from the realities of being a woman will not help her stay safe in any environment, educational or otherwise. Speaking up about, in her presence, will.

Side Note: After speaking with the school’s assistant principal I was assured the gym teacher would be reprimanded for her inappropriate remarks, and the school is working on crafting a policy for gym clothes.

dress code sign

Yummy Snacks Anyone?

Yummy Snacks Anyone?

veggie chips

Not too long ago I received an email asking if I wanted to try out some new snacks for free. The goal of the email was for me to taste the product and write a glowing review thus providing some nice advertising for the company. I like snacks and I especially like the free kind so I signed up.

A few weeks later my snack pack arrived. Quite honestly I was prepared to dislike these chips. I am all for healthy eating but the chips were pushing it with gluten free, vegan, kosher, low fat, non-GMO and baked. How could something with all of those restrictions actually taste good?

Well, they do taste good. Not just good but delicious and so satisfying. These chips are made from peas and corn with a bit of oil and salt. They are as crunchy as Doritos with none of the guilt. The chips are also dry to the touch which is different from other pea crisps that I have had. I tasted three varieties: Original, Sriracha and Aged White Cheddar. My favorite by far is the Original. The Sriracha was too garlicky for me but some will like that. The cheddar ones were tasty too but I preferred the plain ones.

What I really like about these chips is that they are really really crunchy and really healthy. One good-sized portion has only 2.5 grams of fat, 120 calories, 4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber. You really can’t beat that kind of nutrition in a snack.

My kids tasted the snacks and no one was particularly moved by them. But I think they might grow on at least my son. So the bottom line is that I got the snacks for free but now I am a believer. I will have to head to Whole Foods for my next supply.

Are you wondering how you too could get free snacks? If you want to try The Real Deal Veggie Chips for free here is your chance. Send your email address to me at Catherine@thefamilycoach.com and I will raffle off a package of chips. Happy snacking!

veggie chip close up