Teen suicide has been on the rise in recent years and sadly, TWEEN suicide (children ages 10-14) has doubled since 2009. For much of this, social media has been blamed: specifically, since rates have risen so sharply (doubling in the 10-14 age group) since the advent of the smartphone. Cyberbullying and the pressure to have a picture-perfect life for social media has led many young people to have mental health problems that lead to teen suicide. But after a high school sophomore from Corona Del Mar High School in California took his life, a principal from a neighboring high school, Newport Harbor High, felt the need to speak out to the parents of his students, in a desperate plea to save lives.
In the Coronal Del Mar teen suicide, Newport Harbor principal Dr. Sean Boulton says in a Facebook post, social media and cyberbullying weren’t the main issues. The deceased child, he says, left suicide notes “which made mention of the pressures of school and growing up in Newport-Mesa.”
The Facebook post, which Dr. Boulton wrote as a letter to parents, says basically that these days, in some cases, we are pressuring our kids to death. I find that his insight is startling yet rings completely true, and I think ALL parents need to take note. He says:
…there remains valid, heartfelt concern for this tragic incident, specifically from notes that the deceased student left, notes which made mention of the pressures of school and growing up in Newport-Mesa. A lot to ponder, and many conversations and changes ahead but how did we get here?
Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning “A’s” in AP classes became the norm.
Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures.
When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was “cool” to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls–and our children.
I’ll interrupt Boulton’s comments so you don’t miss this line: “This is when we start losing our collective souls–and our children.”
When I think back to my own high school days in the 1990s, my parents just always asked me to do my best. I was a high achiever but not a genius, I got decent test scores and went to college and got a communications degree. For my husband, who is highly intelligent but was a slightly above-average student with good but not fantastic test scores, the story was different. He WANTED to go to school to work on cars; he had carefully researched his college of choice and had it picked out for years. But, his dad, a very smart, accomplished Air Force engineer, wanted his only son to get a 4-year degree. So off my future husband went — and spent a miserable first year at a four-year college until he was finally able to convince his parents that it wasn’t for him. He wasted 18 months of his life and his parents’ money on something he was PRESSURED into, and not designed for. Which leads me to Boulton’s next comments. He continues:
We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a “C” grade in a class is a the end of the world, and we don’t allow our students to advocate for themselves. We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university.
BINGO — I agree with Boutlon here, we HAVE to be willing to let our kids fail, and to let go of what OUR PARENTAL EGOS want them to achieve in life. Spoiler alert: my husband eventually went to his dream school, got great grades, graduated in just over a year, and has been very successfully supporting himself and our family as an automotive technician for 19 years IN THE SAME JOB, where he was recently promoted to shop foreman. And I am nothing but BURSTING WITH PRIDE over it. (As are his parents.) Should our sons want to go the same route, I’d feel the same, as Boulton says we should. His statement continues:
We say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don’t want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a “C” in a tough class and are proud of themselves.
ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless.
We had a waiting list this year for culinary at NHHS and construction technology at Estancia–this is a telling statistic. We consistently have students lost in our administrative/ counseling offices, and in classrooms whom we tell, “College is not for everyone, but look at what you can do.” We invite military recruiters to our campuses so they can work with students on valued and significant careers in the armed forces. Please know there is so much behind the scenes we do to diffuse this environment, but we can not do it alone anymore.
A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: “Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time.”
It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C”, applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5 [percent] as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.”
We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.
I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry.
We need to start now.
Listen, moms and dads: I consistently tell my children that I would rather them have a good CHARACTER than good GRADES. I even had to say this in an age-appropriate way recently to my -year-old who was so upset after not winning the spelling bee at school that he could not tell his classmate who won “good job.” (Yes, I get it, he’s seven, and this was a first lesson for him. But I did take the opportunity to tell him, “I know you’re disappointed, but I want you to be a good FRIEND more than I want you to be a good SPELLER.” The next day at school he was able to tell his friend “good job,” and you know what? I think he will remember that lesson.)
So let’s commit, parents, to lessening teen suicide by lessening the PRESSURE we put on our kids to PERFORM. Let’s stop telling 15-year-olds that their upcoming AP math test is going to have a life-long impact on their career and ability to provide for their families. Let’s let them FAIL (you can read about my own EPIC high school failure here) and help them CHANGE COURSE when needed. As Dr. Boulton said above, “We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.”
And he’s right. We need to start NOW.