Lessons from ‘A Mother’s Reckoning’

Seventeen years after the Columbine massacre, Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mother, has written a memoir “A Mother’s Reckoning.” Dylan and his friend and classmate, Eric Harris, killed 13 people and injured 21 others before killing themselves on April, 20, 1999, during a school shooting at Columbine High School. “A Mother’s Reckoning” is Sue’s attempt to help parents recognize signs that a child is in trouble, signs that she failed to recognize in Dylan.

Dylan, a senior at Columbine High at the time of the shooting, was not known to be a problem child. He had friends, held a job and was college-bound. He’d even been to the senior prom a few days prior to the Columbine massacre. Dylan did, however, harbor a secret. He was depressed, suicidal and full of self-loathing thoughts and feelings for months and even years prior to Columbine.

Sue called Dylan her “golden boy”; she had an investment in seeing Dylan as angelic even when he was experiencing a life far from golden. At some time, probably in late elementary school or early middle school, Dylan did attempt, in a typical childlike and inarticulate manner, to share his distress with his mother. Because Sue viewed Dylan as well-adjusted, easy-going and generally happy, she did not press Dylan to find out more about how he felt inside. Instead, she told Dylan not to worry and that he would feel better. Well-intended parents often respond to their child’s negative feelings by telling them not to worry and it will get better, as a way of fixing, rather than accepting and addressing, their child’s suffering.

Sue writes in her memoir that she wishes she had explored and embraced Dylan’s negative thoughts, feelings and doubts. Had she done so, she would have had the opportunity to support Dylan and to teach him how to do the same for himself. Instead, her investment in viewing Dylan as her “golden boy” clouded her ability to see Dylan’s evolving negative self. Sue’s dismissal of that side of Dylan may very well have contributed to Dylan’s depression. Her compassion as a mother is evident in her memoir. But at the time, she responded to his needs with fear. She chose to view Dylan’s troubles as superficial and fleeting, and addressed his concerns with the empty reassurances that resulted in his further alienation from her and his family.

Sue is not unique and, in fact, her reaction to her son’s suffering is common. Parents are not good at watching their children endure pain and sorrow. Parents fight hard to prevent their children from the experience of pain, and most parents would rather endure any amount of hardship before watching their own child suffer. It’s out of that love and desire to protect a child that a typical parent response to a child’s upset is, “Don’t be sad, don’t cry.” Telling a child not to feel what they already feel only complicates that child’s feelings. That child may learn to distrust their own gut feelings, and they may tell themselves,  “I don’t really feel sad or I shouldn’t feel sad, mom told me not to.” A child may respond by shutting down further and by attempting to ignore his bad feelings. Children don’t want to upset their parents and if they believe that sharing negative thoughts and feelings will worry or upset their parents, children will avoid sharing at times when they need the most support.

Dylan was not a typical teenager. During his final two years of life, he was chronically depressed and suicidal. This was revealed in his journals that were found after his death. Yet all children experience pain and therefore all parents can benefit from Sue’s message: loving a child is not enough to prevent his suffering. And, in fact, protecting a child from his own pain and attempting to talk him out of feeling bad doesn’t work; that approach may intensify a child’s feelings of isolation and aloneness.

Here are some signs that a child may be suffering in silence:

1. A pattern of consistent complaints of mental or physical discomfort with no identified cause

2. A tendency to spend more time alone than with others

3. A change in grades, friendships, priorities or appearance

4. A pattern of subtle lying, stealing or cheating

5. A generally flat, irritable or negative mood

6. A vague reporting of their lives — parents guess what their child is doing, but they don’t really know

7. Avoidance of conflict

Sue wants us to know — and I agree — that parents should not attempt to protect their child from their distress. Rather, acknowledging their child’s pain will allow a child to feel validated. A child who accepts his suffering will feel compassion toward his vulnerabilities, and develop into a healthy adult who feels at peace with his entire self, even with those aspects that are difficult and painful.

 

Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to kate@drkateroberts.com or www.drkateroberts.com.

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