A Teen in Pain – Understanding His Needs

The phone number that flashed across my cell was unfamiliar. But it was the first day of my son’s sophomore school year, so I answered it expecting a teacher or principal to be on the other end.

“Ms. Muller,” a woman’s voice said. “This isJulie White, the school’s counselor. I have your son in my office.”

My son Tevin, the youngest of my five children, was known for having “anger issues” that came out predominately whenever he disagreed with an authority figure. Over the years he’d spent a lot of time in someone’s office.

“Your son had an anxiety attack in class today,” White continued. “I’m very concerned. Tevin says that you two have a good relationship and communicate well. He said he’s told you that he sometimes thinks about killing himself. Is that correct?”

I paused before answering. My 15-year-old son had shared his thoughts of suicide with me, but only recently. I was surprised that he had told someone he didn’t know very well.

“Yes, we have talked about it,” I answered. “Is he okay?”

“For now, yes. I think it’s great he feels he can talk to you. But I’d like to suggest taking him to a crisis center. And I would encourage taking him today. Did you know that he’s been cutting?”

I felt my heart belly flop and land awkwardly in my stomach. No, not my child. How could I have missed something like that? He and I talked. He told me about his friends and music and we watched anime together. Maybe it wasn’t the best mother/son relationship, but I refused to believe my son purposefully hurt himself.   

And yet, when we were in front of the therapist at the Aurora Mental Health Center that day, Tevin pulled up his sleeves and I saw the scars for myself. Many were older, but some were still fresh. Undeniable proof that my relationship with my son was not as strong as I wanted to believe.

The year before, Tevin had started his freshman year at Gateway High School. Phone calls about Tevin’s behavior were common. That is, when he bothered to attend class.

I tried talking to my son about it. I told him I needed him to just try at school. I needed him to be respectful. I needed him to get to class. But while I was telling Tevin what I needed, I didn’t consider his needs or that he might have something more going on. I perceived him as an average teen, moody and rebellious.

Since a traditional school wasn’t working out, I tried another option. Tevin began his sophomore year at APS Avenues, an alternative school that values social emotional health and skills just as much as academia. Classes are small, averaging between seven to 10 kids.

The students begin every day with an activity called ‘Circle’. Students and teachers stand in a circle and give a number between one and ten on how they’re feeling that day. They can share why they feel that way, safe with the knowledge that what’s said in the circle stays in the circle.

APS Avenues, which was previously APS Online, began implementing a new system just this year. David Loudenslager, who began teaching for APS Online four years ago, said the new program has teachers and students interacting and has had a much better impact on students. He never really got to know Tevin through the school’s previous program.

“I thought he was really introverted,” said Loudenslager. “He would come in, just kind of throw his hood up and sit in a corner.”

On Tevin’s first day at APS Avenues, they did Circle. Tevin, who had always been uncomfortable sharing his feelings, panicked.

Later, at the therapist’s office, I learned that Tevin had been taking Xanax the year before with a girlfriend with whom he often ditched school. Until she overdosed on the drug. He still carried the guilt with him. I learned that my son considered killing himself every day, and smoked marijuana and cut himself to numb the sadness. I sat on the couch next to Tevin trying not cry.

From there we laid out a plan. We created list of people Tevin could turn to, alternatives to cutting, regular appointments with a therapist and antidepressants. Tevin’s teachers and school counselor are also a part of the plan. Tevin contributes to Circle now with no problem.

Loudenslager has noticed a big difference in Tevin’s attitude over the last 12 weeks compared to last year. The sense of community helps.

“He knows in Circle he’s safe. That it’s safe for him to vent and his classmates are there for him.”

It can be tricky for teachers dealing with teens who have depression or anxiety.

“We can’t use one blanket to fix it, or one specific way,” said Loudenslager. “We need to find a way to fit their needs as both learners and individuals.”

Tevin has promised to talk to me when there is a problem and I have agreed to give every situation consideration and talk things out with him. Knowing that he has so many people who care about him has made a difference in Tevin’s attitude and self-confidence. He never ditches school now and his grades have improved.

For my son and me, our journey has just begun. We are trying a different therapist, after the first one didn’t seem to work out for Tevin. It’s not an easy fix. Dealing with depression and anxiety takes a lot of adjusting, being open to new ideas and making sure that everyone involved is honest and communicating.

I think the hardest thing for me has been trying not to blame myself. I told myself that I should have caught this sooner. I should have been suspicious of why my son insisted on wearing long sleeves in the hottest part of summer. I should have paid more attention to the fact that a lot of the music he listens to is about taking drugs and suicide. I should have paid more attention to him and gotten to know his friends. But I didn’t do any of that. So now all I can do is put it behind me and learn from it as we go forward.

Before I started working on this article I asked Tevin if he was okay with me writing about him and if I should leave anything out. He said that I should be honest, about all of it. Because maybe it will help someone else going through it. Allowing me to share his story is a huge step for Tevin, and I’m just thankful we made it this far.

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