Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
Helping Children: Keeping Tabs on Teens
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “My teenage son lost his older brother to suicide earlier this year. He’s in school activities and has nice friends, but I’m so afraid something terrible will happen to him, too. I worry all the time, especially when he stays overnight at a friend’s house, and I need him to call me. How do I find the balance between overprotecting him and just letting him be a high school kid?”
It is to be expected that parents feel vulnerable themselves and feel that their children are vulnerable after a death in the family, especially a death from suicide. The teen years, when children are widening their orbit beyond the home, are challenging for most parents. So it’s understandable that you feel anxious.
But there are many positives in this story. The fact that your younger son has friends, and is involved in activities are indications that he is engaged in life, is connected to others, and has healthy, age-appropriate interests. These involvements suggest that he is managing this difficult time after his brother’s death well. And by recognizing that these are wonderful things, you are supporting him in doing what he needs to do to heal and grow. If he were to isolate himself, to be deeply sad most of the time, to find nothing in life that gave him joy, or if he were to get involved with drugs and/or alcohol, those could be signals that he’s not coping well and needs additional help.
However, it certainly is OK for parents to check in with their teens. Any parent wants to know where and with whom their teen is spending the night. It’s fine to ask a teen to check in before he settles down at someone else’s house. It’s appropriate to want to meet his friends and to be able to talk to their parents. That’s not smothering, it’s putting in an extra layer of precaution that helps everyone feel more secure. If you can be matter-of-fact about these check-ins, not overdoing them by having too many in one evening, or sounding panicky on the phone, your son can accept them as caring parenting. In the same way, clear rules about safe driving, respecting curfews, and not abusing substances help keep teens safe.
It may be helpful for you to make a connection with one or two mothers whom you respect as good parents. You can get a sense of what they do to balance keeping tabs on their teens while letting them gradually have more freedom. This may give you some benchmarks.
Support from others who have lived through the death of a son or daughter will help, too. So can stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive relaxation, and yoga. If your anxiety still feels intolerable after a few more months, you may want to look into getting some professional help so that you don’t feel crippled by it. And most important, let yourself enjoy your younger son, one day at a time.
Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti co-authored the book 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children. Anne is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and their parents in Northfield, IL. Vicki is Manager of Children’s Bereavement Services at Rainbow Hospice in Mt. Prospect, IL. They created this Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death Series for the Alliance of Hope.