Throughout my 20 year career as a clinical social worker in private practice, I have sat with hundreds of teenagers and parents experiencing many different issues. Addiction, anxiety, depression, divorce, expulsion, oppositional behavior and sexual identity issues, just to name a few. Countless hours of witnessing pain, anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and just as many hours offering comfort, hope and problem solving.
There is one day, one session and one hour during my 20 year career that stands out as the most painful, heartbreaking and devastating of them all.
I will call my client Steven, he is a smart, sensitive, kind, athletic 16 year old boy. He loves sports, playing the guitar, and time with his friends and family. He comes from a loving, smart, family with no major familial stress, until now.
Steven is suicidal. His parents are scared and angry.
Steven did what over 30% of teenagers do online. He chatted with someone he had never met in person.
Two years have passed since he was first contacted by “Jennifer”, a sassy, playful 13 year old girl from California. Now, Steven sits before me, broken, ashamed, confused and desperately wanting to take his own life. His parents, motivated by fear and punishment, have removed all electronic devices from his room. They have taken away Steven’s phone, iPod, ipad, laptop and gaming console.
With the road to his social support blocked, he painfully detoxes from his first experience of being “in love”.
As we process what has happened, I learn that Steven’s father was suspicious of his son’s online relationship and pointed to the clues that set him off. Jennifer would never agree to meet Steven’s parents via Skype or facetime and always got off line immediately when one of his parents would walk in his room. During their relationship, Steven became withdrawn from his family, isolated from his friends and started being disrespectful to his parents.
The relationship between Steven and Jennifer was difficult for his parents to understand. Why would he choose a relationship with someone across the country, someone he could never see or be with instead of someone in his school? At the end of the day, Steven’s parents were less concerned with the relationship itself but terrified by the changes they were seeing in their once happy-go-lucky, respectful, and social son.
Steven’s world became smaller and smaller.
What prompted the appointment with me was investigative work by Steven’s mom. Intuitively, she knew something was terribly wrong and could no longer rely on the trust and open communication which historically guided their relationship. Steven’s mom looked at his text messages, pictures and Instagram posts. In a few moments, she learned of her son’s toxic, manipulative, divisive and abusive relationship and decided to further investigate.
After a basic search, Steven’s mom found out that Jennifer’s phone number belonged to a 32 year old male, living in South Carolina. At first she guessed that was probably Jennifer’s father, but the age, last name, and location just didn’t match up. His parents went to the local police who eventually tracked the address and found out he was not Jennifer, nor was he the person assigned to that phone number.
Jennifer was a 42 year old male with a history of child pornography charges living in upstate New York.
The single most heartbreaking part of this story is the absolute devastation and confusion on Steven’s face, in his words, and in his body language. He sat before me, convinced that it is all a mistake, that she is real, his first love, his only love, his future wife, his whole world. He recounted conversations, her voice, her pictures, “It can’t be true, because if it is, does that mean I am gay? If it does then I will kill myself.”
The guilt and anger Steven’s parents felt, the risks his father was willing to take to cause pain to the perpetrator, and the discipline his parents were choosing in an effort to keep Steven safe were each pieces that needed attention. But the obvious priority was to keep Steven alive long enough to heal from this betrayal. It was a long road, but together, we got to a place of healing and understanding.
When I was asked to be a part of Social Judo, Steven was the first client that entered my mind. If there is something this amazing that I can be a part of, that can actually give parents the tool they need to prevent this kind of devastation? Then count me in. Kids like Steven and parents like his need this parenting tool to get out in front of the online perpetrators who prey on our kids.