Be aware. Be available to your children. Listen. Talk.
It is a terrifying time to be a parent.
Monday evening, I learned that a student in my oldest son’s middle school had passed away. The next day, media reports stated that the Maine State Police were investigating her death as a possible suicide.
The girl, 13 years old, was in seventh grade. My son is in fifth, and he will be 11 next month.
The prior week, I had read a story that made national headlines, about a 12-year-old girl in Florida named Gabriella Green who had taken her own life. Two middle-school students, also 12 years old, have now been charged with cyberstalking and cyberbullying in the case.
My son will be 11 next month.
I try to be a relatively open parent and talk to my kids about difficult subjects just a little bit earlier than I want to. The impulse to keep my kids innocent, and guard their childhood for as long as possible, is incredibly powerful in me. But the realities of the world have shown me, just as an observer, that it is better to talk, and be open, than to shelter, lest your involvement comes too late.
I think part of that philosophy comes from the fact that I was a relatively young father, having my oldest just after turning 26. Being that young, you remember being young yourself, and I certainly remember how easy it was to hide things from parents, and how far behind every parent’s awareness is, when compared to what really happens with kids.
That memory convinced me earlier was better, despite how much I want to avoid it.
The story of the cyberbullying in Florida came at the same time I was reading about the sentencing of Larry Nassar, who is responsible for — together with those complicit individuals who passed the buck and looked the other way — the horrific, systematic abuse of hundreds of young women in the USA Gymnastics program.
Some of the victims of Nassar’s abuse were as young as 6 years old.
My son will be 11 next month.
Faced with the overwhelming horribleness of the week, I decided to sit down with my son to talk about not only bullying, cyberbullying and suicide, but also sexual abuse and the importance of talking to people if something bad is happening.
I was insistent. I was clear. I was repetitive. I asked a lot of questions. I let him ask a lot of questions. I tailored my language to ensure that I scared him, but didn’t scar him.
What I got back was an unequivocal answer. He didn’t see anything. Nothing was happening to him. If it was, or if he ever felt hopeless, or like giving up, or that no one was listening, he would reach out. If it wasn’t to me for some reason, then it would be to someone he trusted, be it a coach, a teacher, or even just a police officer.
I felt a little bit better. A little bit.
But then I talked about the Florida incident on the radio show I host every morning in Portland. I even recounted the story of talking to my son, and how he had not experienced anything like that yet.
I openly wondered, as the audience listened, why that was the case. Was it happening and he just didn’t notice? Is Yarmouth different, mostly free from the evil things human beings do to each other in other communities? Was he lying to me?
Later that morning, several text messages started coming in to me. “Yarmouth has LOTS of bullying, FYI,” one read.
My heart sank.
Flash forward to four days later, and the email from the superintendent of schools, informing the community that a student had died, later learned to be a possible suicide.
Regardless of the root cause of this girl’s death, the reality is that she clearly felt hopeless, and something was tormenting her to the point that she felt that hopelessness.
Every parent that I know thinks that they know what is happening in their kid’s lives. They talk. They coach. They ask how their day was. They host friends over and observe birthday parties.
We’re all involved.
But one thing is universally true. You know less than you think you do. Be aware. Be available. Listen. Talk. And never assume it couldn’t happen to you, because it can.
If you, or someone you know is in need of help, you can find it. Call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112, or just dial 211.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.