By Dr David Laing Dawson
Juliette is shy of her 14th birthday and Romeo perhaps 16. Shakespeare knew this tragedy would not play had these “star-crossed lovers” been much older.
The brain has not fully developed until age 22 to 25. Yet the years before that involve an intense social learning curve, a testing out and practicing, competing, comparing, shunning and sharing. The prizes are belonging, achieving, competence, prominence, intimacy, self-esteem and sex.
Our brains are also uniquely forward looking. We listen and scan for the minute and hour and day to come. We perceive and select from our environment information that informs us of what is coming. Even when we retrieve memory we shape it for tomorrow. We reform, reinvent the memory to serve our needs for today and tomorrow.
It is no surprise to me that when I ask a teenager what really happened at school yesterday or last week they respond with at least three versions that support their wishes for tomorrow, with total disregard for logical narrative. I have to fill in the blanks to get the true story, or at least a plausible facsimile.
And as teenagers they have limited perspective, limited sense of a world beyond themselves, limited sense of the many years and experiences to come. They live in the now, anticipating only tomorrow. Only a teenager could mouth the words, “If I’m not invited to the prom my life is over.”
And today teenagers live within this cauldron of social competition 12 to 20 hours per day every day of the week. Even when they reject it, as some do, they are defining themselves by rejecting their peers.
So, along with the risks for suicide listed in Part II teenagers also pose the risk of concluding – on the basis of what we adults know is a temporary setback but they see as life defining – that they should kill themselves: the posted naked picture, the rumour at school, the rejection, the betrayal, the public or gossiped accusation….
As I was writing this a Washington Post article popped up on my Blackberry Passport. A girl in the US is on trial for manslaughter. She had encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself through a flurry of texts. When he was parked in his pickup truck filling with carbon monoxide he stepped out and texted her. He wasn’t sure. He had second thoughts. She told him to get back in. This he did. She was 17 when she explained to him that a better life awaited him in heaven.
Apart from anti-bullying initiatives are there ways we can reduce this risk unique to teenagers and youth? Maybe.
- Ensure they have reprieve from the adolescent peer cauldron. Electronics off by 9 pm at the very least. Holidays totally away from this. Family time without electronics. More of their time with peers spent in supervised skill building activities.
- Know what is happening in your child’s bedroom.
- Know what is being posted on your child’s facebook and instagram account.
- Know what they are texting to one another. At least check on it occasionally.
- Never, ever let them have access to lethal weapons. And there are times a car or a truck can be considered a lethal weapon.
- Understand what I have written above about the adolescent brain.
And for teenage and youth counselors, therapists, psychiatrists and family doctors. Please, please, always see these kids with a parent. Make the time you see a kid without a parent an exception for a good reason. Not the kid’s reason, but a good adult reason. And the only good adult reason for not having a parent present is that you have seen the parent(s) and he or she is hopelessly drunk, violent, stupid, immature or in jail.
You see, it is seldom you (therapist, counselor) who can provide an alternative reality to a teenager drowning in his peer group, at least not for much more than an hour a week. But a parent might be able to with some encouragement, instruction, and advice. Just simply having a parent in that consulting room with his or her son or daughter may empower a parent to be a parent, may assign responsibility where it really belongs, and open the window for a teenager to see that there is an adult world with a broader and longer perspective.