Clinical psychologist David Coleman on how to deal with a teenager during the summer months and broaching the issue of a suicide in the family with your children.
Question: My 14-year-old son has totally slobbed out into his summer holidays. He is normally a great kid and he was very focused in school, as he had a really busy routine, between schoolwork and sports.
But now that he has no school he is just lazing in bed, on his phone all the time, and when he does get up it is simply to go out to his friends. We've had two big rows already about his laziness. Even if he got up earlier and showed some interest in the family I'd be happier. How can I avoid fighting with him for the summer?
David replies: Even though the school year can be really busy and really pressured, your query reminds us that the summer is not without its stresses too. It can be difficult to watch our teenagers just coasting through each day with little forethought and little consideration of others' needs.
Mind you, self-centred and unplanned activity is fairly representative of how most young teenagers approach life!
That said, it is possible to avoid conflict with your son. The best way to achieve this is to align your expectations of what his summer will involve with his own expectations.
I am guessing, from what you have written, that he has drifted into his holidays without much of a plan about how he is going to spend his days. Or, whatever plan he has, he never communicated with you.
Similarly, you may not have put too much thought into how he would spend his summer, and, now that you see him being so chilled out, realise that you need a plan for him, even if he doesn't have a plan for himself.
So, rather than having occasional rows, which probably occur when you are most frustrated by his apparent laziness and selfishness, you need to sit down with him when you both have the time and energy to discuss his summer fully.
Although you probably have strong views about what he "should", or at the very least "could" be doing, it is important that you give him lots of opportunity to express his views and his preferences about what he does, day-to-day.
So, listening openly to his perspective is critical to the success of the discussion. I could imagine that if he feels you are coming in with a pre-determined agenda, that he won't be keen or willing to engage.
It is probably wise to start the discussion with an explanation of your worries about him, or your concern about his wellbeing, should he continue to drift through the summer. You need to explain why it is that you think he needs to be more planned and more active.
It is important that you have rationale for why sleeping late, getting lost in a virtual, screen-based world and ignoring the family, are not healthy for him.
Then you need to give him the opportunity to respond. Don't be tempted to turn the discussion into a lecture. Invite him to contribute this by asking "what do you think about what I am saying?" or by encouraging him to "tell me about your view."
As he speaks, avoid cutting him off, or immediately discounting or being critical of his perspective. The fact that he thinks differently to you is what is at the heart of the arguing. You can be prepared for him to have a different standpoint.
It is also much better for you to keep talking in "I" statements. So you must talk about "I believe…", "I feel…", "I think…". This will help to keep you from falling into finger-pointing, blame and criticism, all of which would lead him to become defensive and resistant.
I also think that you will have a very strong case for pushing him to have balance in his life. So, catching up on sleep is fine, as long as it is balanced by exercise and activity too. Gaming and social networking are fine as long as they are balanced by real-life interaction. Time devoted to himself is fine as long as it is balanced by time spent contributing to, or helping the family.
Teenagers do need the summer to recharge the batteries for the coming school year. I think that if you show him that you can understand this, but that you just want him to treat the family fairly too, that you will reduce the conflict and you might both enjoy the summer more.
Question: I am in a dilemma about how to describe my brother's death to my two teenage sons. My brother, shockingly, hanged himself three months ago. The whole family has been very upset since. I never told my sons the true nature of his death as I was so afraid that it might put the idea of suicide in their heads. They believe that he had an accident on the farm, which is what we told them, but I am afraid now that they will hear from older cousins the exact way that he died. I am just terrified they might do something similar. Should I tell them the truth?
David replies: Death by suicide, of a family member, is a truly shocking experience. Typically, the death leaves so many unanswered questions and it is easy for those who are left behind to second-guess if there was anything you could have done to prevent the suicide.
I could imagine that your family is indeed rocked by your brother's suicide. I could also imagine that it must be very hard to keep the true manner of his death a secret from the teenage nieces and nephews.
I can understand your concern about your sons, in relation to suicide, but I think it is probably unfounded. Indeed, you may be doing your sons a disservice by not talking with them about their uncle's death.
Given that some family members are fully aware of how he died, it is probably only a matter of time before your sons find out the truth.
It is always better for our children to hear the truth from us, rather than discovering that we either hid the truth or told a blatant lie.
Even if our lies are designed to protect our children from some perceived harm, it can disturb, or even damage their faith and trust in us. Our children, and teenagers, need us to be reliable and they need to be able to trust us.
If you do choose to talk to your sons about their uncle and that he killed himself, you may discover that it actually frees them up to talk to you about suicide.
I think it is very likely that they have suspicion, already, about their uncle's death. The shock waves that it has caused, have no doubt been experienced by your sons too.
Indeed, if they are aware of how he died, they may be very confused and restricted by your explanation that he died in a farm accident.
They may have many questions about his death that they will feel blocked from discussing with you, since they are aware (from what you have said so far) that you either are unable or are unwilling to talk about suicide.
If you explain the true nature of his death you will free them up to talk about, ask questions about and discuss openly all of their own fears and beliefs about suicide. These kind of open discussions about suicide, within a family, are a good thing.
When youngsters know that suicide is not a taboo subject and that their parents are willing to engage with them about it, then they are much more likely to talk about any suicidal thoughts that they may have had.
Teenagers experience real stresses and worries, just like everyone else. Those worries or problems may seem insurmountable and death may feel like a real escape.
We should never assume that any young person has never contemplated, or wondered, about suicide. Indeed, many adults may have had passing thoughts about suicide too.
Most of us never act on those thoughts. They are, thankfully, transient and fleeting.
But, being able to talk to someone that we trust about those thoughts further reduces the likelihood of us taking some kind of suicidal action.
Discussing your brother's death with your sons is not likely to increase the chances of them thinking about or considering suicide.
Indeed, all of the research shows us that feeling a freedom to discuss suicide actually reduces the risks of it occurring.
So, I think you need to be brave and to talk about your brother's suicide to your sons. It may be distressing for you to revisit the manner of his death, but it may also be a very protective thing to offer your sons as they navigate the complexity of growing up.
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