I have something to tell you and I think it’s going to make you mad.”

My daughter’s voice was small as she stood in the kitchen doorway while I complained that I was tired and still had to make dinner. “What is it?” I wish I could say I was patient. “I promise I won’t be angry. I’m just in a bad mood.”

She glanced down at the floor, clearly ashamed and nervous about what she had to tell me. “I think I want to hurt myself. I don’t feel safe.” Those words changed the course of my day, my week, and probably my life.

That night I spent six harrowing hours in the emergency room with my 19-year-old daughter on suicide watch, going home only when she had been admitted to a local psychiatric hospital. I was worn out beyond belief. How does a mother sit next to one of her children and know that her child’s life had become such a dark place she was willing to end it?

I am grateful she reached out to me that afternoon with her fears of hurting herself. Not many young adults will do that. Why was I a lucky one? What was different that she’d felt safe enough to open up to me even as I groused about how bad my day had been and how tired I was?

Be a lifeguard, not a helicopter

In 2014, there were almost 43,000 deaths from suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death, but it’s the second leading cause of death for young adults ages 15-24. Why is it that at their darkest hour our youth feel they have no one to turn to for help? What can we do differently to reach out to them and help them feel safe?

There’s a lot of talk about helicopter parents. I like to think of myself as a lifeguard parent instead. A helicopter parent hovers overhead and swoops in to save the day whereas a lifeguard parent stands by, encouraging their child to take risks and only jumps in when the child is in over her head and calling for help.

There are four key choices I made when I decided to be a lifeguard parent; these choices made a huge difference.

1 | Choosing to get in the water

A lifeguard allows us to choose whether we want to be in the water. As a parent, I always encouraged my children to think for themselves. I’d offer my advice if it was appropriate, but I never made the decision for them, even if I took criticism for this from others.

Of course, there were times when I simply had to step in and be the one in charge; we’re parents and that is what we do, but when I could I left it to them. When they were young, I’d coach them through this step, and I still do when they are making a big decision, but I have to do it less often because they are able to think critically about the decisions they are facing.

2 | Allowing them to stay in the water

The lifeguard never decides if the water is too cold for us, or if it is too deep for us. I’ve never witnessed a lifeguard advising people to stay out of the deep end simply because it was over their heads. A big caveat to letting children think for themselves is allowing them to face the consequences of their decisions. If they never experience the negative impact of a bad decision, they will never understand why it was a bad one.

I’ve rarely intervened when my children have made a bad choice and had to suffer for it. Of course, a lifeguard must judge when someone in the deep in is in distress, and as parents sometimes we have to make those same decisions and step in even when we’re not wanted.

3 | Trusting them to know what they can do

A lifeguard assumes you’re a swimmer until you prove otherwise. They may recognize that you are a lousy swimmer but they will never stop you from trying. Letting our children face the consequences, of course, means that you have to let them make mistakes. There may be many times that you are aware of them making a decision that you know will have a negative impact on them. It is respectful to allow them to do that!

4 | Pulling them out with dignity

A lifeguard pulls a distressed swimmer out of the water without judgement. A key aspect of being a lifeguard parent is never saying I told you so. I have never seen a lifeguard pull a drowning person out of the water and berate them for getting in over their heads. As a parent we can’t either. If we don’t give our children a chance to fail, they will never learn that they can succeed. When we say, “I told you so,” the only thing we teach them is that our decisions are better than theirs, insinuating that they will always need our help to make sound decisions.

Lifeguards are safety nets

As a non-swimmer, I know I’m always a little bolder when swimming under a lifeguard’s watchful eye than I am when I’m swimming on my own, even with other strong swimmers. I know the lifeguard’s got my back and that if I get a little further out than I can handle they’ll jump in and pull me to safety. As a lifeguard parent that’s what I want to be: the one who stands beside my children as they interact with the world, willing to pull them in when they get over their heads.

When I was a teen my swimming friends competed for the lifeguard jobs. It had perks, like getting to be at the pool or beach and out in the sun all day. Being a lifeguard parent has its advantages as well. It opens the possibility of being a parent and a friend to your children, and that leaves you free to admit when you need help or have made a mistake.

As a lifeguard parent, I don’t have all the answers. In fact, sometimes I need other lifeguards to help me do my job. I have often admitted to my children, just as I would to my friends, that I’ve made a mistake, misjudged something, or needed to update my way of thinking about something. Letting our children know we make mistakes strengthens the relationship between us by showing them that none of us are perfect and that we all make poor choices sometimes.

The water is really deep sometimes

I have something to tell you and I think it’s going to make you mad.” I may never have heard those words if I hadn’t chosen to be a lifeguard parent. I might have woken up to a daughter who had overdosed and was maybe fighting for her life, or worse. 

Further information about suicide and suicide prevention for young adults can be found at PsychCentral and The Yellow Brick Program.