nothing that focuses the mind more powerfully than tragedy. When the tragedy involves children or
adolescents, it becomes all the more compelling for parents, teachers and the
collective of health professional and politicians to closely examine what could
possibly lead to a child attempting to take his own life or for a teenager to
end his own life? The Greek
philosopher is quoted as saying ‘a life unexamined is a life not worth
living’! It is equally true to say
that ‘an untimely death unexamined is a death that has no meaning.’ It is such a traumatic and painful time
and the sensitive timing of such an examination is crucial. Nonetheless, it does no service to the
young person’s sad passing, to those who are left behind to grieve, to other
young people and to other families, to not pursue an understanding of the
tragic event. In attempting to
explore what were the young person’s remote and present life circumstances,
there is no intention of blaming anybody – parents, teachers, peers, in-laws
and other significant people. I
have said it so many times that no parent or teacher ever ever wants to
deliberately hurt a child or thwart their healthy development. But the reality is that there is nobody
who does not bring some emotional baggage into their relationships, whether
these be with children or adults.
It is for this reason that there is a collective responsibility required
to ensure that any adults who have responsibility for the care and education of
children are provided with the opportunities to know themselves, know children
and ensure that children know them.
There appears to be a belief floating among parents that attending a parenting course is an admission of failure as a parent. On the contrary, it is an act of maturity to attend a number of parenting courses over the course of children’s lives, because different knowledge and skills are needed at different child-developmental stages. And what is all this sensitivity about being seen as having failed? Everybody fails in relationships at some point; it is accepting and embracing such failures that are intrinsic to the emergence of mature relationships. It does little for children’s mature development when parents are embarrassed about or mask or blame others for mistakes. Mistakes are never sinful or wrong, but they are opportunities for deepening relationship with self and with children. How powerful the modelling for children when a parent admits, apologises for and learns from ‘losing it.’ Success and failure are integral to parenting in that both of these experiences set the next challenge, whether it is to set a new challenge following success or having the challenge to learn from failure.
In examining the tragic deaths of young people, it is important that all individuals and social systems who influenced the life of the young person review their relationship with the child or adolescent and, indeed, with the parents. It certainly is the case that successive governments have turned a blind eye to the absolute necessity to provide state funded parenting courses. There is also still considerable fear around parents and teachers being partners in the complex and challenging tasks of rearing and educating children. Many health professionals engage in labelling children rather than seeking to understand the underlying hurts that lead children to act out in troubled ways. Furthermore, medicating children is a bridge too far away from truly understanding their depression, anxiety and suicidal responses. The notion of ‘don’t open the can of worms’ is still a prevalent defence. It is for this reason that any attempt to prise open the said can of worms needs to be done lovingly, non-judgementally and empathically. Anything that falls short of that calls for examination.
In terms of parenting courses, it is essential that such courses focus primarily on the interior world of each parent and how that interiority impacts on parents’ relationships with each other and each with each of their children. Parenting courses that are focused on children miss the fundamental fact that a parent can only parent a child to the extent that he or she parents self. It is now a truism that all parenting starts with self. An unconditional relationship lies at the heart of effective parenting, but this only becomes possible when the parent relates to his or her own self in that mature way. Parenting courses need to support parents to cherish self and take responsibility for their own precious lives. The realisation of this provides the solid basis for effective parenting.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of All About Children.