Every day I worry about my teenagers.
I worry about them, and their peers, in ways that I never expected.
I’m not surprised that I worry about them, but I’m very surprised about the things I worry about most. I was prepared to worry about totally different things than what the reality of parenting teenagers today actually is.
My teenagers are thoughtful, kind, compassionate, accepting, intelligent, hardworking human beings. They do not fly off the handle constantly or treat every word from my mouth with disdain. My teenagers get good grades, and complete assignments without drama. They are involved in extracurriculars. We go to church. They are not out partying or breaking curfew. They are well-liked. I have been delighted to find that I love their teenage-selves every bit as much as I loved their baby/toddler/preschool/child-selves.
But I still worry about them every single day. I worry for their very lives, and I just didn’t know that this is what I would worry about.
I didn’t know that I would worry that they will be gunned down at school.
I didn’t know that I would worry that suicide will touch our lives, either directly, or through another kid we care about.
I didn’t know that I would worry about even speaking that sentence because of the judgment it invites.
Adrenaline floods my heart every time I receive an email or phone call from the high school. I worry when I get a text from my son during the day. Is he in danger or does he need money for an AP exam tomorrow? It wasn’t always like this. I was in high school when Columbine happened, but we didn’t carry that visceral fear with us in our backpacks every day, wondering if we were carrying enough textbooks to stop bullets. It was a horrific rarity, but it is no longer rare and it follows us everywhere now; school, church, the movies, concerts. Will this be the last time I tell him goodnight? Will he still be there when it comes time to pick him up? I never know.
I hold my breath when my child awaits a return text from a kid who is struggling. I worry because mental health services are so hard to access, even when you know your child needs the support. The wait times and costs are unacceptable. I worry because parents don’t always listen to their kids, and because the stigma attached to things like depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation is still so strong it stops people from getting help. I worry because families become isolated when they struggle under the weight of these things. Parents don’t bond over them the way they once bonded over dirty diapers and sleepless nights, but they need the support much more desperately.
I always knew I would worry about my teenagers, but nobody told me it would be this way, that the most prevalent concern would be death. Is it a secret? Or are these issues something that the generations before us did not have to carry in their hearts every day? I don’t know the answers, but I want to know the parents who are coming up behind me that this is where we live now. Teen suicide has risen dramatically. Mass shootings are too frequent. Our kids carry all of these concerns, too. Change is slow, even when we know what needs to change. I don’t have the answers, but it starts by have to find a way to talk about these things.
We have to support our kids and each other, and move these issues from darkness into light. This is how we start.