When Your Child Says 'I Wanted To End My Life'

When you hear these words from your 15-year-old at dinner, the world stops.

My son is a popular kid in school with many friends now, but it wasn't always like this

"When I was in Class 6, I thought of ending my life." 

When you hear these words from your 15-year-old at dinner, the world stops.

I had to very quickly try very hard not to react with "Whaaat?! Why?!"

Instead, I asked calmly, "Really, why?" 

"Arrey mom, it was the time I was really being bullied, remember, in school. I was short, skinny and getting picked on."

Suddenly it all came back to me. We forget so soon but the one who suffers doesn't. 

He is a tall, popular kid in school with many friends now, but it wasn't always like this. My older son took his time growing up, his physical growth was often not commensurate with his age. 

For the longest time, as others boys or girls in his grade shot up, he remained the short, thin one. 

As a result, till he hit his teens, he was constantly getting picked on. He was pushed, hit, called "piddi" (weak) and excluded from groups. There was no one thing, it was just about the way he looked - different from the others.

He became withdrawn, didn't like going for parties or school trips, but more than anything, he started to act more and more like a child; it was almost as if he wanted to go back to a place a time where everyone was like him, and liked him. 

Initially, we thought it was a phase and it would pass. Then we took him to specialists to see if there was something wrong, if something could be done. Thank God we met with really good doctors and counsellors, all of whom told us not to worry, keep an eye on him and be supportive.

But it wasn't enough, things didn't improve at school and finally my husband took it up with the principal and my son's class teachers. Something had to be done. Kids can be cruel, and perhaps they don't understand how much they can hurt others, but adults cannot look away. 

Again, we were lucky. The school was supportive and teachers spoke to his classmates, explained how the teasing made my son feel and also worked at bringing him out of his shell. 

Four years later, it's a distant memory for us. But perhaps it isn't for him. He is very conscious of his body. I didn't realize when he started running or doing weights that it was a very deliberate effort to ensure he would never be considered weak again. He is also very generous towards younger children - perhaps his own way of ensuring that they don't go through what he did. 

He still says he is very thin. I tell him to blame it on my genes and flash the phrase, "You can never be too rich or too thin or too famous." 

But I wonder how kids learn to body shame at a such an early age. A friend's daughter, just 12 years old, is being ragged in school and now feels she is ugly.

My friend in fact changed her school and made a very deliberate effort to choose a new school that has just 10-15 kids per class so the teachers keep an eagle eye on what's going on. This was to ensure that what the child went through previously is not repeated. 

We also spoke to her constantly about how looks and how they don't matter, about inner beauty, and most of all about throwing all of this to the wind and being a child enjoying herself.  

At an age where colour, shape, size should not even be part of our consciousness, its seems all-pervasive in our young. Growing up in a world of Kim Kardashians and perfectly turned out stars that beam every image on Instagram looking like a 10 wherever they are, from their bedrooms to the airports, reality today is not what it is used to be - or at least not as its projected. 

Everything has got to be perfect, my sons tell me only brands work and ''Really, mom, no one wears Liberty or Bata shoes''. How and where did these middle class children from a Delhi suburb start talking about brands in class 8 and 10? We grew up without thinking about what we looked like or what we wore. Whatever our parents got us - and no, they weren't sneakers or studs, they were white sports shoes - we dutifully laced them and off we went to find out who had finished homework and was therefore available to play with in the neighbourhood. 

Now, playtime is Insta or House Party or some other chat room that will appear in the next 20 seconds. Conversations are memes about everything and if it's not proper organised sport with some academy or in school, no child is walking the colony aimless, just looking for a friend without a gadget. 

I know at this point what many of you must be thinking: oof, we sound like our moms and dads talking about ''how we did it differently'' and every generation will seem alien to the previous one, it's all part of the cycle. 

Only this part of the cycle is not real, it's manufactured, it's disconcerting, it's fake and it's teaching Gen X to be more detached, more clinical perhaps, even more insensitive, where the only real connect is to an image or a perception, not the real person or situation.

The perception so strong it can lead a Class 6 child to think of killing himself; it took him almost three years after that to start believing in himself. The process was slow and involved our whole family, but most of all, he had to be brave. It's been difficult to shed the image that started dogging him at the age of 11. Yes, 11!

Constant encouragement is key; he still tends to underestimate himself and has to be reminded that he can be whatever he wants. 

My husband's push to play sports and ensuring that he accompanied our son help; so did his own band of what he calls his set of "misfits", great kids who surround him with all the love and support in the world.

My younger one, who just happened to be very popular from a young age and a star athlete in school, seeing what his brother went through, became an anti-bullying crusader, protecting kids wherever possible if they were being troubled. 

He is also (not demonstratively) in his own way very protective of his brother. He'll never admit it of course; that's not cool.

What is a must in our home is Talk. We speak about life and music, school and films. Everything. But most importantly, we talk about feelings. It's not about a set time or something scheduled, it's now built in to our engagement. It can happen anytime, anywhere, and we all know that whatever it is, it will be sorted out together. Nothing, nothing at all is worth ending your life - this has been driven into my sons explicitly, implicitly, and recurringly.

Sometimes, even now, my older son will say occasionally, "I know I am not good looking" and then quickly say "Oh, I'm joking". But I wonder...and it does keep me awake at night.

Manika Raikwar Ahirwal is Managing Editor and Editor (Integration) with NDTV.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.