Gone are the days of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or even wondering if kids still play spin the bottle. On Thursday, Robbinsdale Schools called and emailed all middle school parents to tell us about the choking game. And yesterday, Dunwoody Patch, just outside Atlanta, reported that a 10-year-old boy there died from the choking game last week.
This is not something I wanted to think about. I fear the thought of my children getting hurt by something they did themselves. And that got me thinking—how do we save our children from themselves?
When kids are young, we have to watch them at all times. As demanding and exhausting as this is, you can usually say with great certainty that you know what they’re up to—then they become teenagers.
Suddenly, doors are closed that always used to be open. They run from the room when they get a phone call, and if you’re lucky, you get a head nod to acknowledge your presence in public.
You can’t get a babysitter for a teenager, and privacy becomes the Holy Grail in your child’s life. So when you hear of more reasons why you need to know what your child is doing when you’re not “in their space” it begs the question, “How do you keep your child safe while still teaching them independence?”
I wish there was an answer to why some kids seem to go through these years with little more than acne and break-ups, while others are caught in a terrifying storm of emotional and physical trauma. I decided to see what the experts have to say to ease my mind.
I went online to Kids Health and Dr. Heidi M. Sallee and the staff at the Mayo Clinic for a few practical tips we can all use as we navigate parenting an adolescent in potentially dangerous situations:
1) Educate yourself.
Just by reading this article you are already following expert advice. We are blessed to live in the information age and even though every child is different, someone else has most likely faced a problem we're having for the first time. Anxious about sharing personal problems with other parents? You can get ideas, inspiration and resources online while keeping your anonymity.
2) Pick your battles.
No, you may not like when they paint their nails black or wear flip flops to the bus stop in winter, but make sure you save the most serious discussions for those about things that could potentially affect their mental or physical health. Sometimes asking why they are making the choices they are or looking for a middle ground on a lighter topic can keep you from having ten-foot walls already built when the conversation turns to critical issues.
3) Know the warning signs.
In reference to the choking game, both Mayo and chokinggame.net—a website recommended by Robbinsdale schools—mention these:
- Unexplained bruises around the neck
- Frequent, often severe headaches
- Bloodshot eyes or small, red facial spots
- Disorientation after being alone
- Sheets, belts, neckties, scarves, T-shirts or ropes tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs, or found knotted on the floor
- Mentioning choking games, showing curiosity about asphyxiation or having a history of Internet searches about choking games
- Wear marks on furniture legs
The choking game certainly isn't the only way our tweens and teens may get into trouble. As parents we worry about drugs, relationships, self esteem issues and a myriad of other ways our kids are less than their best selves.
Mayo Clinic psychiatrist David Mrazek, M.D., says it's important to watch for more general signs of depression or elevated stress such as:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, hobbies, sports and other activities
- Depressed mood
- Worsening school performance
- Decreased energy and/or motivation
- Anger, irritability or rage
- Being very sensitive (possibly overreacting) to criticism
- Poor self-esteem or guilt
- Decreased concentration, difficulty making decisions
- Changes in sleep or eating habits
- Suicidal thoughts
Mrazek says if your child is exhibiting several of these signs for days or weeks, it's a good idea to take action. Have them seen by their pediatrician, psychologist or other health care provider.
So to all the parents out there, let's talk. How do we let our children gain their independence while still making sure they'll have tomorrow to learn from their mistakes?
Gail is a Robbinsdale mother of two teenagers.
Kay Gordon (mom of 2), Golden Valley
"This is such a tough question, and I would love to hear from moms who have teens. My oldest is only 10, but she's already become a tween. It's cute that she likes Justin Bieber and has her friends over for sleepovers where they braid each other's hair. Those kids in Robbinsdale playing the choking game were barely older than she is. I can't imagine her doing something so foolish because she's so young. And I was upset that she knew what I was talking about when I told her about the choking game. But if I hadn't said something I'd still think she was immune from bad things. So I now know to talk to her and not assume she does or doesn't know anything. I know that much, but I sure wish I knew more."
Cindy McQuinn (mom of 4), Wayzata
"Watch em like a hawk! I look for abnormal behavior/activity. You know the heart of your child by that age! As long as they live in my house I will know all computer passwords, have access to their rooms, and they are to abide by the rules of the house. Its VERY IMPORTANT to know their friends and have them to your house often. If the friends won't look you in the eye or chat casually, beware! On the other hand, I love them & do my best to stay in a good relationship w them (texting helps!) while allowing them to gain their independence as their level of maturity and responsibility grows. It's tough but so worth it! We only have a short time to help shape them towards their full potential."
Tara Krolczyk (mom of 2), Minnetonka
"Get them involved in activities outside of school, such as sports, musical instrument, something your children have an interest in. Sign them up with another friend. Get to know their friends parents by carpooling, socializing with the parents at the kids games if they play sports. Keep communication open with the parents. Talk to your kids about drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, bullying. Help them with solutions to these topics. Bring these topics up often, so your children will feel they can eventually talk to you about them. Don't wait until these matters occur, talk to them early about them.
I think I would notice warning signs with my children, because I pay attention to their daily behavior. Although, I can't be certain. Warning signs would be withdrawing, depressed, may not want to socialize with certain friends ... My solution would be to talk and listen often. Talk to their teachers for any behavior they may have noticed."
Susan Urban (mom of 1), St. Louis Park
I sit down with my daughter when she gets home from school or at dinner time & ask open-ended questions about specific parts of her day beyond academics-- who did you sit by at lunch, what did you do in gym class, who did you play with during recess. I try to make sure I meet her friends by introducing myself to them at school functions. So far, keeping the lines of communication open has worked well. Last year when she was being bullied, I found out just how much more I knew. When I called to talk to the mother of another targeted girl, I found out the mom didn't know anything had even been happening. I was so glad we had been talking.