My Son the Caretaker
THIS WEEK’S PARENT TRAP…
My 16-year-old son is a really great kid, but lately, some of the things his friends are getting into are unsettling, to say the least. I’m hearing about the usual drinking, smoking pot and becoming sexually active. But most concerning are the number of friends (two girls) who cut themselves and obsess about suicide. The parents are aware of the problem. I’m obviously afraid for these kids, but also concerned about my son, who tends to be the caretaker for a lot of them. I’ve encouraged him to spend a month this summer with family to get a break from all the emotional upheaval but he worries if he goes he won’t be there to stop his friends if they decide to harm themselves. I think he talks them down quite often. This is beyond my parenting expertise – what do I do?
YOUR TWO CENTS…
Help him understand the signs that a relationship is becoming toxic or harming to his happiness. That will set him up for success.
John, North Vancouver
This seems like a tough situation to be in; your son sounds like a caring empathetic young man. Try explaining to your son that these girls are dealing with complex emotions and that it may be healthy for him to take a step back from the friendship or set some boundaries with these girls. Taking on all of their emotional issues is eventually going to impact him and his life negatively.
MICHELE KAMBOLIS SAYS…
When others suffer, we suffer. It’s our deep capacity to feel the feelings of others, to share the same reality that lifts us when others are lifted and compels us to relieve another’s pain. It’s our compassion that heals, inspires, relieves, holds us together and raises our humanity. But when does compassion cross over from healing to harmful?
Your son may be falling into the role of the rescuer. But in this case, the need to rescue is driven by a terrifying threat – a weight far too heavy for any teen. Your adult presence is critical throughout this crisis, if he is to be lifted from the deep sense of responsibility he’s carrying about the safety and mental health of his friends, so take a strong lead on this one.
If mental health professionals are involved, reassure your son that the right supports are in place. A suicide prevention therapist will have ensured that the girls have a safety plan. Encourage him to ask what strategies they’ve agreed to follow if they bring up the topic of suicide again.
Next, help your son to develop a strategy when dealing with his friends in need. It can go something like this: “The feelings and thoughts you are having are serious and I’m really worried about you. We need to either talk to one of our parents or go to the hospital to make sure your safe.” Remind him that if his friend is unwilling to choose either option, the most secure step he can take is to bring an adult in to assess the risk – to do otherwise is potentially life threatening. The point here: this is far too serious a matter to go it alone.
There is very little that can be more disturbing than when someone we love threatens to end his or her life. Consider seeking a therapist for your son so he can better understand the range of reasons why some people have these troubling thoughts. Most importantly, a good therapist can help him better understand what he needs in his relationships, empower him with tools for coping and discover where his responsibility as a friend ends and begins.
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