Let's Talk Tween

Information and insight about kids ages 8-12 (the "in between" years)

She Said She Wants to Die, but She’ll Kill Me if I Tell

Difficult dilemma: When your tween's friend talks suicide.

When your tween's friend talks suicide
When your tween's friend talks suicide
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It was during a routine ‘texting’ check that Madison’s mother discovered the concerning conversation on her daughter’s phone. As she scrolled through the content of her daughter’s conversation with her friend Kayla; a serious situation appeared to be unfolding. It seems Kayla was reaching out to Madison because she was feeling depressed and contemplating suicide. By the end of the conversation Kayla acknowledged that the number of cons on the list that she and Madison had discussed certainly outweighed the pros. She was okay, for now. As she signed off with a “thanks for being such a great friend,” she added in, “please don’t tell anyone about this, I would be really pissed if you did, luv ya.”

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Madison’s mom finished reading the saga with mixed emotions. On the one hand she was proud that her own daughter was able to provide such caring support to her friend. On the other hand she was concerned for Kayla and upset that Madison had not come to her about her friend’s crisis. “How can a 12-year-old be expected to handle such a serious situation,” she lamented. She also felt anger and frustration that her daughter had been put in this dilemma. The last line of the conversation made it clear why Madison felt she could not step forward and tell.

The scenario above may sound distant and surreal. If you are the parent of a tween however, it may be more applicable than you think.

During the tween year’s kids become more socially interested and savvy. Middle school seems to set the stage for cliques and clubs, gossip and drama. Pre-pubescent kids find themselves managing a whole host of different emotions. As their young bodies form and develop on the outside, inside body chemistry shifts and changes as hormones encourage growth and change.

It is usually during the tweens years that children begin to rely less on their parents for companionship and advice and more on their friends. Tweens turn to their peers for camaraderie and counsel.

The tween years bring new pressures. Academics are more emphasized and the pressure to excel in specific areas such as sports, or the arts may seem more important. Tweens turn to each other for support and guidance. They share their hopes, dreams and disappointments with their friends. The intensity of the emotions they feel often increases and dramatic situations within circles of friends and associates seem to soar.

It is not uncommon during these years for tweens to feel twinges of depression and or anxiety. A new understanding and awareness of the outside world can bring feelings of stress and uncertainty. A tween managing too much pressure may feel overwhelmed. When hopelessness and helplessness set in, thoughts can become difficult and dark. A tween may turn to a friend for support before talking with a parent. This can put a friend in a difficult dilemma, as outlined above.

“If I tell anyone,” tweens have reasoned with me, “then he won’t want to be my friend any more.”

“But, if your friend isn’t around anymore because he takes his own life,” I have often reasoned back, “it just won’t matter. You are doing your friend a favor when you let a responsible adult know he is in trouble.”

Tweens like teens are subject to the ‘illusion of invulnerability,” the false belief that bad things only happen to other people. On some level a tween may believe that their suicidal friend will not follow through. Often tweens in this situation take on the role of therapist and caretaker. They check in with their friend and carry the burden of her woes on their own backs. They take for face value that when their friend says she is “okay for now,” that they have done their job.

The burdens they take on for each other are often immense and overwhelming.

It is not easy to talk to your child about suicide. Parents are however best served discussing the possibility that a friend may come to them with a dilemma they are ill equipped to handle. Open and honest communication with our kids is the best way to stay connected.

The media provides us with a steady stream of information and happenings going on in the world. Parents can capitalize on this open access by asking their tween’s opinions or reactions about a triumph or tragedy played out in the public eye. Open discussion about a celebrity break-up or a starlet’s drug addiction or overdose can provide a positive forum to address the realities of a difficult world.  It also offers an opportunity for parents to talk about how their kids can help if their friends come to them with concerning dilemmas.

Madison’s mother called Kayla’s mom. Kayla later apologized to Madison for putting her in such a tough spot. She also thanked Madison for being such a good friend to her. This small but important act helped Madison acknowledge that a true friend should not shoulder a situation she alone cannot control or handle. She pledged to tell her mother immediately if she ever found herself faced with a similar situation.

Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and parenting expert specializing in work with tweens, teens, young adults, and their families.

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