As Bruno wrote, a friend will sail around the world to find you, guide you when you can’t see, and help find what you and he are “made of.” And he’s right: most good friends will do whatever it takes to be there for each other. There’s a hitch, though. It’s not always so easy to deal with heavy feelings like depression—even suicide. What are the “right” things to say?
What if you mess up? What if you make things worse?
Here’s the deal: some of you are born with the “listening” gene and know exactly what to say, when and how. But if you’re like most of us, when it comes to dealing with complex problems, you feel like you did on the first day of high school (or middle school)—lost, nervous, confused.
So, stick around. The stories and strategies coming your way will help you know what to say and do when a friend needs your help.
Josh started giving things away—his books, his calculators, his good pens. He wouldn’t need them anymore. Josh had had enough. He couldn’t stand the pressure: all the pushing to stay at the top of his class, to get all A’s, to get into the best college. He was tired. The pain was too much.
Josh had decided to take his own life.
He walked home from school alone, working out the details of his suicide.
“Hey, Josh,” his friend, Dylan, yelled, interrupting his thoughts. Why did Dylan have to bother him now? Josh kept walking.
“Wait up!” Dylan said again, as he ran to catch up with Josh.
Josh didn’t stop.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dylan asked, out of breath, once he’d caught up.
“Why didn’t you wait?”
“Didn’t feel like it.”
“Didn’t feel like it? Well, screw you!”
“Yeah, screw me. That’s what I’m about to do.”
Dylan was surprised. Why was Josh acting so hostile? “Something bothering you?” he asked.
“Yeah . . . lots of things.”
“Like I’ve had it up to here,” he said, pointing to his neck.
“What could possibly be wrong with you?” Dylan asked. “Your life is all set.”
“That’s what you think,” Josh mumbled.
“That’s what I know. You’ve got it all together. Valedictorian of the senior class . . . Harvard freshman. What more could you ask for?”
“Come on, Josh, you’re acting crazy.”
“I feel crazy. I’m all messed up inside.” He paused. Should he even bother?
“You? Messed up? Come on, you’ve got to be joking.”
Fine. He’d tell him. “I’m going to kill myself.”
Dylan looked at his friend. He couldn’t be serious. Not Josh.
“I mean it. I want to die,” Josh said, as if reading Dylan’s thoughts.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Dumb to you, maybe . . .”
Dylan started to laugh. “Here’s Mr. Together telling me he wants to die. Give me a break.”
Josh was angry. “I’ll give you a break,” he said as he walked away. “You’ll never have to deal with me again!”
Dylan stood and watched his best friend practically trip over his own feet in his hurry to get away. Josh was upset. He’d cool off.
Everything would be fine.
Everything was not fine. Dylan followed his plan and took his own life.
• • •
Josh had taken a big risk by letting Dylan in on his problems and his plan. But Dylan hadn’t taken him seriously. Dylan couldn’t believe that someone who apparently had everything going for him would want to kill himself. He was sure Josh was joking. And when Josh told Dylan he was dead serious, Dylan kicked him to the curb. He told him it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. Dylan’s inability to listen to Josh without criticizing— without judging—made Josh angry. Here he had opened up and tried to talk about his suicidal feelings, and all he’d gotten was a supposed friend who thought it was all one big joke.
Here’s Take Two of the same story. Only this time, I’ve changed the dialogue to give you some ideas how Dylan could have reacted and said things differently.
DYLAN’S STORY TAKE 2
When Dylan saw Josh giving things away, he thought it was a bit strange. What was Josh doing? Didn’t he need his books, calculators, and pens?
Dylan pulled Josh aside after lunch. “Why are you giving all your stuff away?” he asked.
“Don’t need it,” Josh mumbled. “Don’t need anything.”
Dylan was confused. Josh wasn’t making sense. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“Nobody gets it. That’s the point.”
Josh was talking in circles. “You sound unhappy,” Dylan said.
“I’m not feeling too great. That’s for sure.”
“Interested in talking? If you are, I’m willing to listen.”
Should he tell him? “The pressure is too much. My parents, school, myself . . .”
Dylan felt sorry for him. “It must be rough trying to get all A’s.”
“When I was up for Most Valuable Player of the baseball team, I was so nervous. I couldn’t concentrate on hitting the ball.”
“I know what you mean,” Josh said sadly.
Dylan was afraid. “You’re not thinking of doing anything crazy, are you?”
Josh stared down at his shoes.
“Come on, Josh, fill me in.”
Okay. He’d tell him. “I’m going to kill myself.”
“You’re really down, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” He started to cry. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Dylan bit the inside of his lip. He couldn’t panic. Not now. He’d have to take charge. “I’m worried about you,” he said sincerely.
“I want to help.”
“Nobody can help.”
Dylan had to think fast. “How about talking to Ms. Dreiser?”
“She wouldn’t understand.”
“Why not try her? You might be surprised.”
Josh was tired. “I can handle it. Really, I can.”
“I won’t leave you alone,” Dylan said. “You’re my best friend. I won’t let you hurt yourself.”
Josh was relieved. He slumped down on the floor in front of his locker, knowing that Dylan meant what he had said.
So, why do you think Dylan was more successful this time around ingetting his friend to calm down and believe that Dylan really cared?
• He listened instead of interrupting
• He let Josh say what he had to say without judging him, putting him down, telling him what he should do
• He “mirrored” what Josh was saying. “You sound unhappy.” “It must be tough having to get all A’s.” “I know what you mean.”
• He vowed that he wouldn’t leave Josh alone and told him how much he cared. “You’re my best friend. I won’t let you hurt yourself.”
Your Friends Are the First to Know
When you have a problem, where do your turn? If you’re like the majority of your fellow teens, you turn to a friend or to a trained peer leader.
Let’s face it: us older folks (yep, me, too) have a harder time remembering what it’s like to be a teen. We think back on our teenage years as the “best time of their lives.” We can’t remember how much pressure there was to get good grades. We’ve forgotten the pain of breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. (Well, maybe.) We don’t recall those days when being like everyone else was more important than anything in the world. But your friends? That’s totally different. They know what’s up and are right there with you, trying to make some sense out of it all.
• • •
Older folks have a harder time remembering what it’s like to be a teen.
• • •
Mirroring (“Mirror On The Wall—”)
The trick of good listening is getting people to talk about themselves and their feelings. One of the best ways to help someone better understand their feelings is to be a mirror, to reflect back the feelings you think you hear and see.
(Okay. I didn’t come up with the mirror image idea. That was someone a lot more adept at all this listening skill talk than I am. In fact, I first heard about this when I took a parent effectiveness training program because my then two-year-old son was out of control. But that’s another story for another time.)
Here’s how mirroring works: a good friend of yours wanted the nomination for class president but didn’t get it. Looking defeated, he says: “I didn’t get the nomination. There were too many people more qualified than me.”
After giving yourself enough time to think about what your friend was feeling and what made him feel that way, you might say: “You’re feeling that the other kids are better than you because you weren’t nominated.”
You reflected, or mirrored, your friend’s hurt feelings (“You’re feeling the other kids are better than you”.) and you told him why you thought he was feeling hurt (“because you weren’t nominated.”). Feedback is what’s going on here. Not repetition. If you simply repeated what was said, you’d get your friend angry in a hurry. He’d think you were nothing more than an annoying recording app on a cell phone.
Fine, you think. This mirroring business sounds like it may work, but is there a pattern you can follow until you get the hang of it? Some people like using this format: You feel ________because _____________. But don’t think you’re locked into this pattern. You can change You feel to You’re feeling, You sound, You seem, or anything else that works. You can change because to about, with, at, or by. The important thing is that you catch the meaning behind the words and restate what you think you hear. Unless you have psychic powers, you can’t read your friend’s mind. So don’t tell him what’s going on. Mirror what you think he has said. If you’re checking out a hunch—not playing a know-it-all—you’ll have a much better chance of getting your friend to talk.
Here is an example of how mirroring works.
JASMINE: I don’t see why my mother won’t let me go to the party.
SUE: You’re angry because your mom won’t let you go.
JASMINE: I sure am! She’s so unfair.
SUE: You think she’s not treating you right.
JASMINE: I know she’s not. She said I had to finish my homework, and I did. She doesn’t believe me.
SUE: You’re upset because she doesn’t think you’re telling the truth.
JASMINE: She never believes me.
SUE: Can you show her your assignment notebook and the completed homework?
SUE: You’re not sure whether she’ll change her mind.
JASMINE: My mother is very stubborn.
SUE: That frustrates you, because it’s hard to get her to see things your way.
JASMINE: You said it! But maybe if I cool down and talk to her nicely, she’ll let me go to the party.
Take it from me: mirroring requires practice. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and burst right in with your own reactions or suggestions. “Your mother can’t let go. She has to be in control.” Oops. That’s not going to cut it. You’ll just get your friend more tied up than she already is. Nothing will be solved. Matters will probably be worse. So, take a deep breath, put yourself in your friend’s shoes and give mirroring a shot. (BTW, this mirroring technique works in all kinds of situations: in “sparring” with a sibling or parent; working on an issue with your current partner (if there is one); dealing with a teacher whom you feel is asking too much of you or not acknowledging the time you’re putting in to class.)
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