I recently read about the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who, according to press reports hanged herself in her room after receiving “mean” and “insulting” messages from another MySpace user – one that was pretending to be her friend.
I decided to use this report to point out something important about this story. What her parents have gone through in this case is monstrously painful and I don’t, by any means, take up this tragedy to criticize her mother. I can only imagine the amount of pain and anguish her mother and father must be going through. I know if one of my children did this I’d be beside myself in grief and loss.
The reason I bring it up is because of this quote from her mother about the details of the incident:
Megan was distraught. Tina, angry about the nasty online exchanges, insisted that Megan log off the computer.
“Megan got upset with me and yelled — not yelled, but was crying and said ‘You’re supposed to be my Mom and you’re supposed to be on my side,’ and then took off running upstairs,” said Tina.
Twenty minutes later, Tina went to check on her daughter and made a horrible discovery. “I went upstairs and opened the door and saw her hanging in the closet,” she said. “And I screamed and ran over and tried picking her up.”
The key to this interchange is that Megan was distraught. Her mother could see that plainly. I find it unfortunate that her mother apparently had not be trained in validation and emotional distress skills. If her mother HAD been so trained, I suspect she might have approached Megan differently. When someone is emotionally upset and dysregulated, especially in as much pain as Megan obviously was at the time, the best approach is not criticism, but validation.
Like I said, I don’t think the mother’s (Tina’s) reaction is unusual, nor am I saying that a different response might have prevented her suicide. However, when someone is THAT emotional and “distraught” as her mother indicated, the most effective response is validation of the emotions (which is not agreement with behavior). Based on her response to her mother I see certain things: 1) She did not yell, she cried… that is sadness, not anger in her and 2) She took the mother’s response as judgmental and critical of her, at a time when she was emotionally vulnerable and 3) She felt attacked and without comfort (the “not on my side” comment). Again, before I get angry emails defending her mother, it should be stated that her mother didn’t CAUSE the original problem – that was caused by Megan’s own emotional reactions to the “mean” messages. The messages themselves (since we don’t have the full text of them) could have been vicious and nasty, but, even if they were, Megan’s REACTION to the messages – her emotional reaction – was what was at issue. By not being validating of Megan’s emotional reaction, her mother (inadvertently for certain) invalidated her child’s emotional reaction. Emotional invalidation causes despondency and shame.
I wonder what would have been Megan’s reaction had her mother validated her emotions by saying FIRST: “Wow, Megan you look so sad, what happened?” And then after finding out, she had said, “I can see how these mean messages would make you feel so sad. I think anyone who received these would feel both sad and angry. I can also see why you responded with such anger. Those messages would make me mad too.” Finally, if she’d left the “teaching/scolding” moment about the language in the messages until later – who knows what would have happened?
My point is that it is extremely important that parents, partners and friends of highly emotional people (and in highly emotionally-charged situations) learn some emotional validation skills. Again, I don’t know if it would or could have prevented Megan’s death, but if they come at the right moment, these skills can help cool down the emotions so that a child has the opportunity to make a different (and hopefully, more effective) decision.