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Friday, March 4, 2011

Controlling risk as a parent.

For those of you who think all I do is sit around thinking about polyamory this article is going to prove you wrong. And for those of you who are here only to read about polyamory this is when you should change the channel. In this article I'm going to talk a bit about suicide from the perspective of a parent.

Imagine you have a teenage daughter who is fairly close to one of her older female cousins. The cousin picks your daughter up in her car a few times a month to go shopping or to movies, they spend nights at each others homes, and are generally fairly close.

Then one fine day the cousin decides to attempt suicide, failing because she is found in time by a family member. After a night in the hospital, the cousin is remanded to a mental health facility for a week after which she is released and enrolled in counseling.

After a month or so without much contact, the cousin begins reaching out to your daughter via phone calls and messages, wanting to once again go shopping, to movies, or having overnights. For the past month, since the suicide attempt, you haven't heard much about the cousin except that she is doing well. Her family, feeling the suicide attempt is a private matter and possibly wanting to keep things quiet, haven't said much about what happened or how things have changed since.

When your daughter comes to you to ask if it is okay for the cousin to pick her up in her car so they can go shopping, then to her house for an overnight, what do you say?

My response was "no". When asked why I explained that I didn't know the current mental state of the cousin.

About a month later at a family gathering I was verbally attacked by a relative claiming I was being unreasonable. They stated I was being unfair to both my daughter and the cousin for no reason and they demanded an explanation why my daughter was not allowed to ride in the cousin's car or have a sleepover without other adult supervision. When I stated I didn't know the current mental state of the cousin they argued that it shouldn't be my concern, it was a matter being handled within their immediate family. They further maintained that since the cousin was being allowed to drive her car and make invitations to my daughter I should realize that means she is mentally fine.

This is about the time I dug my heels in and prepared for battle.

One of my jobs as a parent is to protect my children. In performing that job there are measured risks that are taken every day. Allowing my child to ride in a car with anyone is a risk, we can probably all agree on that one. But realistically riding in a car is a common thing a lot of us risk every day. Does that mean I would allow my child to ride in a car driven by someone without a license, or a long history of accidents? Nope. With the mental health problems the cousin had in the recent past, and without being informed of her treatment or status, how can I know she is stable? How could I know she won't decide to again try and commit suicide by running her car into a wall? Possibly with my daughter in the car at the time? Likewise, would I allow my daughter to spend a night unsupervised with a friend at their house? Nope. With the mental health of the cousin in question how could I think it wise to allow my daughter to spend the night with her unsupervised?

In my mind it comes back to a level of risk I am willing to accept. Riding in a car is a risk but it is a common activity. At the same time, I can control the risks somewhat as mentioned. Minimizing my daughters exposure, particularly unsupervised exposure, to someone with mental health issues is a risk I can control.

One of the questions this begs is; "How can you know the mental health of anyone?" The answer is I can't. I'm not a mental health professional and even most of them will tell you there are no guarantees when it comes to the human brain. Going back to risk; assuming a healthy mental state is a risk we all take on a daily basis. Don't believe me? Next time you are in the grocery store look at the person in line behind you. Are they a serial killer? Pedophile? Violent? Are they armed at the moment? If they were any of those things would you be standing in front of them, within arms reach? Of course you wouldn't. But you are because you assume the mental health of those around you until they give you an indication they aren't mentally healthy. But wait, the cousin was proven to not be mentally healthy, at least mildly. And to that I can react appropriately, as a parent, and attempt to minimize the risk of my daughter being harmed either directly or indirectly.

I learned a lot during this process. (This was not my first exposure to suicide by any means). I was particularly surprised how many people are ashamed by suicide attempts and try to minimize the information shared about them. I also found it interesting how people are sometimes surprised and angered when they realize a suicide attempt may cause them to be treated differently, though this may explain why many try to hide it. This seems to be even more pronounced when rather than being treated gently and with extra consideration they are instead treated with a level of wariness or even mistrust. I also second guessed my actions quite a bit, wondering if I was overreacting. My conclusion was that when it comes to the safety of my children following my instincts, even if they are overreacting at times, is better than the alternative.

What are your thoughts? Would you resist exposure of your children to someone with a questionable state of mental health, even if it hadn't been verified? Do you measure risk like I do, or do you have another method? What would you have done different had you been me?


  1. This is a tough one.

    On the one hand mental illness is still heavily stigmatized in many areas. I've known some people who actually had a harder time with how others treated them once that person's diagnosis became public knowledge than they did with the disease itself. It's completely understandable that your cousin and her family are reluctant to talk about what is happening now. Shame and fear are such powerful emotions.

    But parents definitely have the right to know if their children are in danger because of other people's actions. If I had a child I'd be very protective, _especially_ in situations where other people weren't sharing basic information about the well-being of someone who wanted to be alone with my kid. That isn't healthy.

    My family tends to be fairly blunt about these things, so if it was my relative I'd ask questions like "is Cousin still suicidal?" or "does her psychiatrist think she is a danger to herself or others?" or maybe even say something like "Cousin, I know you want to drive around with Daughter but I have some concerns about (list of issues). Could you hang out at our house instead?"

    Depending on your family culture this may or may not be effective, of course. :)

    The only thing I would have done differently is to shut down the conversation when the other family members argued that it wasn't your concern. That's a red flag. If they want you to entrust your (minor!) child with this cousin, at the very least you should know if she's getting help or is still suicidal.

    (Specific types of treatments or what she said in therapy last week does not have to be revealed, of course.)

    A final thought: most suicidal people are not a danger to others. I'd be far more worried about my (hypothetical) kid hanging out with someone who has a serious anger management or impulse-control problem.

  2. The Preacher's Kid,

    You make a good point about people having a harder time dealing with others when their problems become public than they have dealing with the actual problem.

    Unfortunately my family (particularly the women) want to hide all medical issues for some reason. That seems to change once they hit about 75 yrs old. It is quite frustrating sometimes. I didn't really want details but simply some type of assurances or conversation that would make me feel my daughter was safe, and I wasn't getting it, and instead felt my concerns were being dismissed.

    Your final thought is somewhat comforting but it still contains the word "most" which is enough to make me want to be protective of my kids. I agree though, I would be much more concerned with the other problems you mentioned.

    Thank you for your thoughts. It makes me feel better knowing I wasn't being completely ridiculous :)


  3. No, in my opinion, you were not being "completely ridiculous". You are a parent. It is your responsibility to keep your child safe.

    If the family is not comfortable discussing this matter, even in general terms, the next best solution would be to invite the cousin over to your home.

    Honestly, even IF the family was open to discussion, if this were me, I still think I'd prefer inviting her over rather than allowing my child an outing with this person.

    Your daughter can spend time with her which is what she wants. This would more than likely help the cousin in multiple ways. AND, you get to oversee and have peace of mind that your daughter is safe. It also allows you to see for yourself what state of mind the cousin is in and evaluate your comfort level for future outings should your daughter ask again.

  4. k!nkyNurse,
    Thanks for the feedback :)

    I agree that letting my daughter and her cousin spend time together is good for them both. I would never want to stand in the way of that but at the same time, I felt I had to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, with the situation the way it was, I don't think there was an answer to make everyone happy.


  5. PP,

    That sounds really frustrating! If you don't already know the answer it may help to ask your family why they're so reticent about talking about health issues. Is there something specific that they're worried might happen? (You don't have to tell us what their reasons are... this is just for your own information. It's easier to reason with someone when you know their fears.)

    I'd be curious to hear an update on this situation once it is resolved!

  6. The Preacher's Kid,

    It is really frustrating. Actually it is a big joke in our family how the women hide health issues. Everybody knows they do it, nobody knows why. Believe me, I wish I knew so I could at least understand it better. P.S. I'm not being sexist, it really is just the women.

    As for an update. . . .
    I had actually sat on this article quite a while before publishing it. I struggled with whether it was too personal and far off topic. I finally published the article because I was still struggling with my emotions around the situation and thought some feedback might help. And it has, thanks to everyone here :)

    Immediately after being called out by the relative I mentioned we had a meeting between my daughter and I, the cousin, and one of her parents. We quickly learned the cousin had been lying, saying that I had forbidden her to see my daughter. In reality, I had only requested supervised visits and that my daughter not ride in a car driven by the cousin.

    Strangely, the cousins lies were overlooked and I was still the bad guy for putting restrictions in place. When asked what it was I wanted to lift the restrictions I very bluntly stated "communication". I then elaborated by saying "You have told me nothing except there was a suicide attempt. Until you convince me otherwise, I will assume the cousins mental state has not improved. If you want the restrictions lifted, convince me the problem is resolved."

    Making a long story short, there were a lot of conversations and eventually I was comfortable enough to let my daughter visit the cousin at her apartment for an overnight.

    My daughter returned saying she would never spend another night with the cousin again. Apparently the cousin (who is almost 6 yrs older than my daughter) was drinking, smoking, and left my daughter alone at her apartment for an extended period of time while she visited her boyfriend who then came to the apartment and went into the bedroom with the cousin for an hour or so. The rest of the night the cousin was talking about how worried she was that someone would break into her apartment and basically preparing my daughter for the next zombie apocalypse.

    Of course, around family the cousin presents herself as angelic and pure.

    My daughter and I talked a bit and she made several concerning statements such as "I don't know who she is anymore" and "she just doesn't seem right, she acts completely different when family isn't around". So, I let my daughter know I supported her not wanting to visit the cousin anymore and would be glad to be her excuse if she felt uncomfortable declining invitations herself.

    As of this writing, several members of my family have come to me privately to say they think there is still a problem with the cousin that her parents are ignoring but nobody will do anything. Her parents refuse to talk with me about her, her problems, or acknowledge there are still problems. Not a good situation and one I doubt will be resolved anytime soon.

    Thanks again for your comments, they are appreciated :)