Written by Kee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention
May 28, 2021
I have been a therapist for 40 years, counseling children, adults, families, and couples. Possibly the greatest gift in my life is working with kids. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear their stories and walk with them on their journeys. I am inviting you to join me and share a glimpse of what I see and hear daily. This following story is representative of young people I have worked with over the years, that have taken their lives or thought about it.
I have a new client coming to see me today. He is a 5-year-old who has been referred by his school counselor because he doesn’t listen, is easily distracted, and makes careless mistakes. Hmmm . . . a 5-year-old having a hard time paying attention and going fast?
I am greeted by a sweet boy full of energy and wearing a big smile. He is accompanied by his parents, both of whom look as though they would prefer to be anywhere but here. I soon learned this young boy loved to dance, sing, and entertain. I also learned one of his favorite things to do was to wear his mom’s make-up and high heels, much to his parents chagrin. He knew he felt different and was not like other boys his age. He also knew his parents did not approve of him wearing make-up or wearing high heels.
One might assume that this story is primarily about gender identity, but that is only a part of the picture. The more significant issue, I would observe, is communication. In every session, we would talk freely. We talked a lot. We then brought his parents into family therapy sessions. Over the next six years, we created a safe environment in which he could express his thoughts and feelings. We taught his parents how to be a part of the safe environment. We made progress.
But then things changed, his parents decided therapy was not working, they wanted to do things their own way. And soon, he stopped coming to see me for therapy. To tell the rest of his story, read a collection of his words and thoughts:
“I am 11 years old, and I am tired. I should be excited and curious about life, but I am not. My parents won’t listen to me, it really sucks. What I think and say does not matter to either parent because I am just a kid. I feel sad and unimportant. I wish I could live with my older sister, she loves me for who I am. She listens to what I have to say and wants me to be me. My parents kicked her out of the house when she was 17, and they don’t want me to talk to my sister because they think she is a bad influence. What about how I feel? Am I invisible? Does anybody hear me? Do I matter? Why should I keep living if I am not wanted? I am tired and I cannot do this anymore, I am done.”
I recall that I was brushing my teeth when the phone rang and I learned that this articulate and expressive 11-year old boy had taken his life. How could this be? While he wasn’t in therapy for a while, he returned, and we had our first session last week, and all seemed well. What did I miss?
As a therapist, I thought of many questions, ways to have helped, so his young life might have taken a different course. Could his parents have communicated more, or learned to use different, more respectful and supportive words? Could they have taken more time to build a deeper relationship with him, to know and value his expression, to listen more closely to him? He needed to be heard without judgment, to be accepted for who he was.
I want to leave you with a message that I have heard so many times from young people on the precipice: I don’t really want to die; I am going to miss so much. What I really want is for people to listen to me, and care about me.
To all of you kids out there, I need to tell you something. There are adults who will listen, find a therapist or a person you can trust. Talk with them and let them in. It might be scary at first, but it gets easier. The most important thing I want you to know is you are worth it.
You are not alone. If you or someone you know is in crisis, whether they are considering suicide or not, please call the toll-free National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, you can also text. Crisis Text Line offers free mental health support. Text “10-18” or “SCRUBS” to 741741 for help. The call and text lines are open 24 hours a day.
Kee Dunning is a psychotherapist in private practice, adjunct faculty and author, writing on topics such as rural youth suicide risk assessment and intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy, teen dating abuse, bullying, and concepts in communication, anger and conflict management. For nearly two decades, Kee has provided crisis intervention for triage for homeless, trafficked, and at-risk youth and families and their support systems; and was Clinical Supervisor for Graduate Studies in Counseling at Montana State University.