Early that morning I got the call.
The kind of call that you never, ever want to get. “We need help, there has been a child death.”
In a split second, my heart sank and my mind began racing with a million questions. As a mental health clinician who works with at-risk students, this is the worst thing you could ever possibly hear.
A student, who was not on my caseload, but attended one of the schools in the same building that I work in, had died by suicide.
She was only eleven.
As we began to gather information, and provide crises counseling and support services to all of the students, her best friend tearfully came forward, breaking down and sharing that she knew before that tragic day that something was very wrong.
Megan* had confided in her that she was being abused by her father, hiding the bruises under long sleeve shirts, even as the weather got warmer. Megan shared that the abuse was ongoing, that she felt it would never end and that living with this secret was debilitating.
But her friend thought she would be betraying Megan if she told an adult. Wanting to be a loyal friend, she kept her secret.
“The last thing I said to Megan was that I would see her tomorrow…but I will never see her again…I just can’t believe she’s gone.” Her voice trembled as she spoke, choking down her tears until it was to much to hold back and she began to cry.
As I met with the children, administrators, and detectives investigating the case, “we never saw signs of any problems” was uttered over and over by different school staff members. By all accounts she was a sweet girl, well liked, and had lots of friends.
Sometimes the children that seem happy and well adjusted are the ones holding on to the most debilitating secrets.
Secrets. They have the ability to cause so much destruction.
As children approach their pre-teen and teen years, their social interactions become paramount in their lives and secrets can become a powerful social contract.
Adolescents often worry that if they tell an adult they will upset their friend or they will be seen as a snitch, which can also lead to being excluded from their social circle—all of which can compel a child to remain silent.
But tragedies like this can potentially be prevented before a child feels so desperate that they take their life.
As parents, we often teach our children to tell us if someone ever touches them inappropriately or hurts them, which is an extremely important message, but it’s not enough.
We must expand on this crucial lesson and also teach our children to tell us not just if they are hurt by someone, but also if a friend discloses abuse and/or suicidal ideation to them.
Despite pressure to keep a secret, it is crucial that we speak with our children regularly about how, even if a friend swears them to secrecy, abuse (and suicidal ideation) is one secret we do not keep. They are not betraying their friend by telling you, they are helping them and that concealing something so serious can have devastating consequences.
In my clinical experience I have seen how well the right treatment can work. When an abused child has support and the appropriate clinical and safety interventions, their chances of self-harm drop significantly.
Given how dire the situation can be, if your child does ever come to you and share that they were told a friend is being abused, please take action.
Abuse is uncomfortable and scary and can make people feel powerless because they may be uncertain of what to do about it. Sometimes it’s hard to believe–no one wants something so horrific to be true.
When we know people, even casually, like some of our children’s friends parents, there can be a natural hesitation to accept that something so awful could really be happening.
We may think that another parent seems “so nice” or that maybe what the child disclosed was a kid just being “dramatic,” that maybe it was all just a typical adolescent disagreement with a parent—that there must be some other explanation.
However, it’s important not to dismiss reported abuse. No one really knows what could be happening in another home and if your child does share that their friend is being hurt, please call the child abuse hotline in your state, you can make an anonymous report if needed.
Or go to the child’s school and speak to the school social worker and/or guidance counselor. You can share information confidentially, clinicians are well versed in not revealing their source, and they can intervene.
No one wants another child taking their life—and your child having to live with the emotional scars that they knew something, but didn’t tell anyone.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.