By Chris Coulter, Maddie's Dad.
Last month I had been invited to speak to a group of grade 7 and 8 parents about teen mental illness, what I've learned of our dealing with Madeline and what we were hoping to accomplish with The Maddie Project. We scheduled a date. I provided a summary of what I was going to talk about and an agenda was sent out to all parents in the school so they could express an interest in attending.
This wasn't the first time I've been approached by schools to talk to parents and kids alike. If I can share our experiences and what we went through, hopefully it can help prevent a similar fate for another family.
The night before my scheduled discussion, I received a call from the coordinator for the school saying that they were cancelling the engagement due to lack of interest. There is something ironic about the fate of my speaking engagement and the basis of my discussion. The topic I chose was called, "Wake Up Parents, It Could Happen To You." I'm not upset but found the indifference or naivety of some parents to be unfortunate. I hope I'm mistaken and that all these parents are addressing all of these issues proactively.
My discussion for that evening was intended to go accordingly:
Every parent's worst and unimaginable nightmare is losing their child. It's the tragedy that I play over and over again in my mind wondering what could I have differently or what were some of the indicators that I wish I had been more aware of and steps I could have taken to prevent my worst imaginable nightmare.
The one thing that parents realize after hearing Madeline's story, her life wasn't too different than many of their children. In fact, on the surface many think how could this intelligent, beautiful, popular teenager take her own life.
The reality is life can change in a moment and that decision making can never be reversed. What drives me crazy are the parents that look at Madeline's situation as an anomaly and think that this could never happen to my child. My response is wake up parents, it could happen to you as easily as it happens to many youths and young adults. It's an irreversible decision that can shatter your family and alter your life forever.
What drives me crazy are the parents that look at Madeline's situation as an anomaly and think that this could never happen to my child.
This is not intended as a scare tactic but only as a wake-up call to those unassuming and unsuspecting parents who feel that our personal tragedy can only happen to someone else.
These are my personal observations, many realized in retrospect only after we had lost our Maddie.
1. Keeping your kids engaged in a focused activity: Kids not only need a sense of purpose but they need to be physically active. We're not talking about seven days a week for two hours a day either. It needs to be intense and purposeful. The intensity is individual to each child. The kids have to feel they are good at it and most importantly love it. Madeline was a competitive swimmer and she was very talented. She grew early and excelled in the pool. As the kids caught up to her in height, some tended to catch up to her in the pool. She became discouraged, frustrated, lost confidence and this started to translate to her results in the pool. For Madeline, the psychological race was taking over for her. As a result, she wanted to quit and we relented too easily and allowed her to do so instead of putting her into a less intense program. It's my belief that after she stopped swimming, she seemed to lose her purpose, discipline and focus. For a teenager, this becomes a slippery slope.
2. Divorce affects your kids: I'm not saying to stay together for the sake of your kids but certainly keep it civil for the sake of the kids but make sure you've exhausted all resources before you decide to go down this road. Divorce isn't easy on the parents but it's even more difficult on the kids. They had no choice in the process and are impacted more than anyone else. Two homes, two routines, packing up and moving every week is not fun for them. Most divorces are incredibly emotional. Things get overheard or even worse when kids are told of details that they should be insulated from. If a divorce is inevitable then put your kids' emotional well being ahead of your own.
3. Push beyond the usual routine responses: As parents, we need to push beyond the normal boundaries of our conversations with our kids. The "school" question is usually responded to in the usual fashion when asked how their day at school was. "Fine" is typical or as my kids tend to say, "It's school, Dad!" The question is important to parents but not so important to the lion's share of kids. We tend to miss the relevant mark with our kids. To most kids, school is a necessary evil and not the thing that keeps them up at night. We tend to see school as the most important topic in our kids' lives but it doesn't rank nearly as important as other topics in a typical 13-16 year old. Things like mental health, bullying, drugs and alcohol rank higher as a concern for kids over school. And we wonder why we're not having real conversations with our kids today. By the way, research backs this point up significantly.
More From Frame Of Mind:
- To Teens In The Darkness: Tomorrow Needs You, We All Need You
- Mental Illness And Teens: It Impacts Every One Of Us
- How I Discovered My Strength In The Throes Of Mental Illness
- Why I Talk About My Depression (And You Should Too)
- Losing My Daughter Taught Me The Importance Of Empathy In Mental Health
- Understanding Teen Suicide Helps Make Sense Of The Heartbreak
4. Managing electronic devices: Kids will stay on their devices all night if you let them. It is important to manage the time that they spend on them. Handing in their phones, two hours after school and around dinner and then have a cut off time before bed. This is paramount to your child's success, happiness, and sleep patterns. Oh by the way, you need to abide by the rules as well. No exceptions!
5. One on one time: Having more than one child means juggling multiple schedules and challenging logistics. Being a single parent makes this especially difficult to manage. But having individual time with each child is so important in developing trust and a significant relationship with your child. The boys and I have always had hockey to bond over. Sawyer and I read together every night. With Madeline it was more difficult and sometimes felt I spent a disproportionate amount of time with the boys over her. It wasn't by design but rather by schedule. Madeline and I would try to grab a lunch or a coffee but it wasn't near as often as I'd spend with the boys and their hockey. Fathers talking to daughters or Mothers talking to their sons can be especially difficult but all the more reason to address it head on.
6. Kids want boundaries: To say that kids would prefer to have no rules versus rules brings the typical "Duh" response but kids need and want boundaries. They need to know how far they can push and understand the consequences if they breach them. There's a fine line between creating boundaries and micromanagement. The other element that is paramount in this equation is mutual trust.
7. Social media: This is a difficult one but feel it is incredible important. It represents an inability for kids to escape the pressures of school, bullying and peers. Kids can be cruel and sometimes without even realizing it. It's important to manage expectations, content and time spent on sites like Snapchat, Instagram and Musically. It's probably pretty obvious at this point but ensuring that your kids have private accounts and not open forums, or ensuring your kids include you as "Friends" on these sites is really important. Good luck with the latter point!
8. Hug them through the anger: This one is somewhat counter-intuitive but effective. A full-on yelling match with your teen is not going to help the situation, your relationship or the potential for resolution. It was always effective when utilized but the challenge is consistency, taking a deep breath before you decide to engage and try for resolution in a public place. The hugging in a public place may not go over well with your kids but trying to resolve your disputes in a public place will keep things things relatively calm and civil.
9. It's alright to admit you don't have all the answers: As a parent, many think it's our duty to have all the answers for your kids. You don't and that's alright. It goes a long way to establishing trust with your kids and makes for better conversations. You can both try to explore and uncover the answers together. No one likes a know-it-all. Your kids are no different.
Don't misinterpret the intentions of this post. My experience with Madeline does not earn me the right to pontificate about being a better parent but only to draw upon the misjudgments that I made along the way. Maybe I am the only parent that wasn't aware of what I wasn't aware.
Teen mental illness can come completely out of left field or there can be strong indicators that have established themselves far in advance. The one thing in common is tragedy can occur in a fleeting moment and no corrective action is possible when it strikes.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Maddie Project is a community effort in support of youth struggling with depression and other mental health related concerns. Driven by community collaboration and events, the project's goals are to raise awareness by sparking conversations about youth depression and mental health concerns as well as to help provide uninhibited access to support for youth and their families.
The Maddie Project was founded in April 2015 in memory of Madeline Grace German Coulter. To date the project has engaged 100s of thousands in active conversations around youth mental health and has raised over $1 million dollars in partnership with North York General Hospital Foundation towards the development of Maddie's Healing Garden and support of other child and adolescent mental health services at North York General Hospital.
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