There are two extreme ways some people seem to view life. One says, “Life is long, painful, and we all die in the end.” Wow, that’s a downer. Are you sure you want to keep reading? Well, how’s this? “Life is a sweet, melodious journey filled with love and joy.” Much better. But what about the truths in between? What about the balance of dark and light? And more importantly, how do you communicate that to a child? How do we ensure they look at life as a joy and a gift, in spite of the moments when it feels like a chore? How do we let them know they are valuable and their life will be what they make it, not what someone else says it is?
It’s not easy. I know, because somewhere along the line, I didn’t get the message. My failure to see the glass as half-full brought me to my knees. Actually, it was more like I was in sand up to my neck. Laxatives became my best friend, and they are related to bulimia. Bulimia was more than happy to bring in her friend depression, and then completed the party with her close relative: suicide attempts.
Thankfully, hospitalization jumped in and helped me out. She had a little help from the small voice in my head that managed to filter through all the poisonous noise and guide me back to health. This whole process started when I was 11 years old and ended with three suicide attempts at age 25.
In reality, it hasn’t really “ended.” Each day is a new silent struggle, but I manage to get through it by telling myself the things I wish someone had told me when I was young and knowing that while it’s true life will have its end, somewhere in between there will be happiness.
What are those things I wish someone had told me? Well, it’s not just saying something; it’s living and emulating behaviors. Things that will transform a child into a compassionate, self-aware adult. In the ever-changing game of life, there is not one magic formula to prevent a person from spiraling into depression, succumbing to the lies of a bully, or continuing a cycle of violence. We never know what action or affirmation might pull someone from the rubble—so we’ve got to offer as many as we can.
You Don’t Have to Be a Parent. Some of the greatest influencers in my life weren’t my parents. They were the neighbors with whom I have been friends for nearly 40 years, my Big Sister who was matched with me over 30 years ago, and my beloved grandmother. They always seemed to know when I needed someone and cared enough to provide support. Whether or not I shared my feelings all the time was irrelevant, as long as I had a friend to call my own. You too can be the mentor, “big brother/sister,” great neighbor, coach, or advocate a young person needs.
Be Kind. Give children more than words of praise; show them kindness. Bring them into the circle if they are standing off to the side. Offer them a chance to show their strengths. Kindness is powerful. When a young boy desperately needed attention, I welcomed him into my home and treated him like family. That was eight years ago. Now 12, he comes over to brag about his accomplishments, ask for advice, or offer to help around the yard. When there is trouble at home, he visits until he feels things have settled down. His parents once thanked me for giving him a safe place to go; whether or not it was his own home, the important thing was that he had one.
Be a Friend. We are told we can’t be a mother, father, aunt, uncle, etc. and still be a friend at the same time. But yes, you can, and you must. Every young person needs an adult friend. They need to know there is someone standing behind them to pick them up when they fall, to laugh and cry with them. If they don’t have a trusted friend, they will never learn to ask for help when they need it. It’s a fine line, but I trust you can learn how to walk it.
Communicate. Each night after the lights are turned off, I ask my kids if there is anything on their minds, anything they saw or heard that confused them. The darkness gives them anonymity to speak freely. Some of our best conversations are held at this time, and it’s built a foundation for trust and confidence. Find your communication groove with the young people who need you in their lives.
Have Faith. I am not a religious person, but I had faith in something when I needed it. You can have faith in a pet rock for all I care—if that rock gets you through the day, it’s the most powerful possession you have. Teach your child to believe in both themselves and something outside of them.
Move On. We all make mistakes, some of them more serious than others, but we’ve got to pick ourselves up and move forward. We can’t let the mistakes define us or fester inside. The mind is a tricky thing; it can consume you and bring you to a place from which you may not be able to return. Don’t give it that chance. Teach children to forgive themselves, and if they can do this, they can recover.
Share. Be honest. Tell them you’ve had a hard time. Don’t be ashamed. It’s OK to struggle. Where you are today isn’t the only thing that matters; your journey does. Let others learn from it—like Aesop’s fables, every story has a moral.
Above all, tell young people there is hope when they feel lost, that they must ask for help when they need it, that they can talk to you—no matter what—and you will hear what they say. There are many things in life that hurt like hell, but there is an incredible rainbow on the other side waiting for us. All the angst children and teens are experiencing may define their life, but it can do so in an incredibly positive and powerful way. Make them believe that.