Mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, recently wrote a memoir. Part of the introduction states, “the ultimate message of this book is terrifying: you may not know your own children, and, worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you.”

In retrospect Sue Klebold identifies her son as being fatally depressed. Journals and videotapes of Dylan’s that were found in the aftermath of the tragedy reveal a deeply suicidal teenager. Yet his own mother and housemate had no idea.

In my work as a counsellor I have listened to suicidal teens and adults, and it’s true that people who seriously contemplate ending their lives mostly do so in privacy. You know why? Because as soon as they say the words, “I don’t want to be alive anymore,” the person they are talking to panics and the conversation becomes about the supposed listener’s upset. Even though the listener means well and loves the depressed person and lists off all the reasons they have to live, most of us screw this part up because we don’t know suicide first aid.

So once more the suicidal person is drowning in emotional pain and justified in thinking, ‘I’m all alone; nobody understands; there’s nothing to live for.’

I have also counselled survivors of suicide – the spouses and parents and children of people who have died by suicide. They all say the same thing: “I had no idea it was this bad for her/him. There were no clues.”

But I will tell you; after I work with the suicidal person or the suicide survivor for a few sessions it becomes clear: there are always clues if you know how to see them.

In no way do I mean to blame Sue Klebold for the massacre at Columbine. I’m not saying she wasn’t paying attention or that she was a deficient mother. But just like my former clients, she sees things about Dylan now that she didn’t notice when he was alive.

If you start wondering about your child’s inner life when they become a teenager, it could be too late.

Part of really knowing your teen is being so familiar with their inner life from a young age that you can spot deviations when they appear. What’s going on for my teenager? How does he feel? What is she thinking? This is not easy because the natural process of being a teenager can seem like one giant ten-year deviation.

That’s why it’s important to know teenagers in general – beyond the ones you are related to – and to be familiar with your teen’s entire ecosystem. You need a wider sample than your own family to understand the spectrum of normal teen experience. You also need to observe your teen over time with the people s/he is connected to in order to identify warning signs.

Tall order? Of course it is. Parenting is a massive project. But our attention gets pulled all over the place and often there’s not a lot available for our offspring. If you work, have a partner, or parent other kids, details will simply fall off your radar due to natural limited capacity. What if you get called for jury duty or your dad is dying or you have to work out of town half the time? How much mental and emotional energy would you have to consciously tune in to the life of your teen then?

We can sometimes convince ourselves that we are already close enough with our kids because we have more closeness with them than we did with our own parents when we were young. But we could still be closer. I’m not talking about in-your-face physical closeness; I’m talking about emotional safety and intimacy.

Challenge yourself and do what it takes to increase your ability to be relaxed and present. Cultivate better communication skills and take some commitments off your plate to make yourself more available. Teenagers are pulling away from us as they grow up, so it can be a very hard time to begin building closeness. Start early.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming your little one is too young to have an ‘inner life’.

Two-year olds can feel self-conscious. Three-year olds can wonder what will happen to them if their parents die. Four-year olds can be concerned about poverty. Five-year olds can strategize about ending war. We all have an inner life. And the protective factor afforded to a young person when they have at least one interested and supportive adult is well documented.

I believe Sue Klebold has lived through hell. I believe her book that says our kids may be unknowable to us.

But let’s try our best to know them anyway.

When terrible things happen in the world I don’t want you to ‘hug your kids’ – I want you to remember to be curious about them. Always.

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