It’s the first week in October and Sheila Washburn has spent the last hour at work pouring over blogs and articles, trying to find out what’s wrong with her son and how she can help him.
It started on a weeknight, just a few weeks into the school year.
It was 2am and Sheila was having trouble sleeping, as she sometimes does. On her way to grab some cereal, she noticed the light on in David’s room, which was unusual. David was not a night person and was rarely awake after 10pm.
She opened his door a crack and saw him staring at his computer, not typing, just staring. He startled when he noticed her, “Mom, what are you doing?”
“I’m just checking to see if you’re okay. Why are you up so late?”
“It’s not a big deal mom, I just have this paper. I’m almost done.”
“Okay, just make sure you get to sleep soon, okay?”
“Okay mom, love you.”
She trusted him, and she knew school was important to him, but something about the look on his face told her something was wrong. He looked tired, but mostly he looked scared, a panicked look like when you know something bad is going to happen and you don’t know how to stop it.
And the next morning, Sheila had to wake him when he slept through his alarm. He told her he felt really sick, and that there was no way he could go to school. Could he please just stay in bed? Something told her that he was lying. He was probably just tired and wanted to sleep more. But, again, David was a trustworthy kid, and she thought this was just a one-time-thing. He’d get things in order and everything would be fine.
But as the weeks went by, Sheila started to realize things weren’t fine. She’d regularly notice that David was awake in the middle of the night, and she started having trouble sleeping herself out of worry for him. Her typically happy, upbeat son had become withdrawn, talking in monosyllables, avoiding eye contact, and just being irritable. But what told her that things were really bad were his grades. David had always been a great student. He’d always gotten straight As. If he got an A-, he’d be upset. And he was really proud of his grades, I mean, He talked about school a lot. It had always been a big deal to him.
Sheila didn’t usually check David’s grades on a regular basis. She hadn’t needed to, and it made her feel like a helicopter mom once he got into high school. So when she finally checked in late September, she was shocked. He had a couple of Bs, mostly Cs, and one D. It was the hard evidence she’d been fearing that finally proved to her that something really was wrong. It wasn’t so much the grades themselves. She’d been a C student, so to her, these grades weren’t the end of the world. But it was what this huge shift in grades represented: Something had dramatically changed with her son, and he wasn’t talking about it.
Again, David had always loved talking about school. He was good at it, and it was clear he liked the praise he got for his success. But even when he’d gotten A minuses and was disappointed, he still talked about it.
But this school year he wasn’t talking about school. He wasn’t talking about much of anything, now that she thought about it. She kept asking him if something was wrong, if he wanted to talk about anything, but every time, he’d have this distracted, distant reply, “I’m fine, mom. Don’t worry about it, okay.”
And really, at the heart of it, was this feeling, that this was not her son. This was not the chipper boy who would rest his head on her shoulder when they watched TV together. And she knew it wasn’t just that he was a teenager. And that the problem was more than grades, more than sleep. She knew something was wrong, and she had no idea what to do.
And so back to that October morning, Sheila’s loosing hope that the internet has her answer, and she Googles the words, “what to do if my son fakes being sick.” Today was the 5th in the last month that he’s lied about being sick. She finds a couple parenting blogs that aren’t really that helpful. They have some tips about what to say, things that might help, but they aren’t calming her deepest fears:
What is happening to my son?
What should I do?
Hi, I’m Corey Busch, and I’ve worked with countless teens and parents in situations like David’s. I was a teacher for six years before switching careers to become a therapist. If you’re listening right now, you might be a mom or a teacher or just someone who’s just interested in learning about how our minds work. No matter who you are, there’s something about Sheila’s experience that we can all relate to:
Someone you care about is having a tough time and you don’t know what’s happening or how to help.
And so, a big reason I started this podcast is because there are plenty of blogs, and podcasts out there with tips and tricks, y’know, giving information in a really easy, digestible way. And that might help a little, but it’s not getting at the heart of the problem. And there’s also plenty of science out there about our brains, and even teenage brains that dives in and gives really thorough, solid information. But there are few places that bring a really deep knowledge of why we experience things like depression, anxiety, anger, to a story format that’s easy to digest and relate to.
And so we’ll follow David, Sheila, and their family, and we’ll look at what’s really going on inside David’s mind.
So before we wrap up, a few notes:
· All the characters in this show are fictional. They are based on hundreds of families I’ve worked with over the past decade.
· Also, this show is not therapy or a substitute for therapy. If you need a therapist, google the word “Therapist” plus your city name.
So next time on The Teen Mind, we’ll start with Sheila’s question: What is happening to my son? We’ll take a deep look into David’s mind, and what causes him to slowly unravel those first weeks of sophomore year?