Liesl Göttert, whose 14-year-old daughter Klara suddenly and inexplicably took her own life in August last year, remembers a conversation with her youngest child a week before she died. It was an everyday conversation between a parent and her teen, light-hearted but charged with an undercurrent of the challenges of growing up.
Something 'big and complex'
“She asked me when she would be old enough to have a boyfriend,” recalls Liesl. “I joked with her and told her she would have to wait until she was 40, because you don’t have brains until you’re 40.”
Read: SA teens: High suicide risk
Looking back, Liesl wonders whether that seemingly innocent exchange contained the thread of something “big and complex” hidden in her daughter’s heart. She still doesn’t know why Klara committed suicide.
Was it because of unhappiness at home? Trouble at school? A fight with a friend? A crush on a boy?
Recently, Liesl was part of an interactive Iris Session on Google Hangouts, hosted by BrightRock and broadcaster David O’Sullivan, which addressed the very complex topic of communicating with tweens and teenagers as a parent. Other panellists included educational psychologist, Tshepiso Matentjie and journalist and author Mandy Collins.
Read: 1 in 5 SA teens just want to die
“Klara’s death hit me so hard,” says Liesl, who has started the Klara Göttert Foundation for support and awareness in her daughter’s name. “We had been through teenage attitudes and fights, the normal ups and downs, like any family. I keep asking why, and wondering where I went wrong.”
Mandy maintains that it’s impractical for a parent to say they know for sure where their children are at all times and what they may be doing. But it is possible to lay down clear and consistent boundaries, and build a relationship based on trust and understanding.
'Your instincts will tell you'
Tshepiso, who has served as resident psychologist on TV talkshows, and as consultant psychologist at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, says a mother is often the best judge of a looming emotional problem her child may quietly be confronting. It’s not called gut-feel for nothing.
“You carry this child in your belly for nine months for a reason,” she says. “Your body will tell you, your instincts will tell you.”
Infographic: Recognise the warning signs of teen suicide
However, it’s one thing to be able to act on your instincts, but it’s another to be able to get through to a teenager. Any parent will tell you that there are two default teenage responses to a good parental talking-to: The back-chat, followed by the door-slam, and the simmering sulk, followed by the door-slam.
“I would rather have a child who chats back,” says Tshepiso. “With the quiet ones, you might miss something.
"You need to look at changes in behaviour, loss of appetite, the signs of something going on. For a parent, it’s so hard to figure out the moment of crisis. Even adults struggle with the stress and pain.”
For Liesl, who hopes the Klara Göttert Foundation will play a role in bridging the communication gap between parents and teens, the signs were there, but they weren’t always easy to read. Klara would tell her mom how she wished she could run away from home. “But I used to tell my parents that too,” points out Liesl.
Watch: An Iris session on parenting taking place on BrightRock’s Change Exchange
“Parents drive their children nuts, children drive their parents nuts,” continues Liesl. “You just don't know what the breaking-point is.
"We sometimes underestimate the fact that young people's emotional capacity only develops much later. Their emotions are on steroids.
Learn to listen
They get super happy, and they get super sad.”
One of the biggest mistakes parents make, believes Mandy, is that they keep their own emotions from their children. “If we don't let our children see that we have a range of emotions, then when they're suddenly hit with those emotions, how do they know what to do with them?”
But there is a simple secret to parenting, and it lies at the heart of all communication. Learn to listen, says Mandy.
“We often don't listen well or deeply enough. Instead, we lecture. Listen to what they're saying, not to what you think they're saying.”
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Image: Depressed teen from iStockThe Iris session was hosted as part of one of many conversations taking place on BrightRock’s Change Exchange, a dynamic online platform that taps into the emotions behind consumers’ biggest life changes. It is a space where people can learn from others going through the same Change Moments, ask questions and share experiences.