Saturday, May 1, 2010

God, Please Protect our Children from Themselves

Quarterbacker Deborah has children in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.  This week, she passed along a letter from Superintendent Tim Cuneo:

Dear SMMUSD Parents and Staff,

On April 28th, the Santa Monica Police Department released information that one of our middle school students died last week as a result of “self strangulation,” also called the “choking game.”

Students, parents, and SMMUSD staff are shocked and grief stricken by this loss. This tragedy also heightens our awareness of the prevalence of children nationwide engaging in this extremely dangerous activity.

The choking game is an intentional activity in which children suffocate each other by various methods, including: strangling themselves or others with belts, ropes, their bare hands, or placing great pressure on their chest in an effort to induce hyperventilation.

What many youth are unaware of is that maintaining a strangulation technique too long may accidently [sic] cause death and/or brain damage.

The popularity of the choking game may boil down to one simple fact: children and adolescents believe it is safe.
We encourage you to talk to your child about engaging in this dangerous game. Below are some websites with information about the choking game and how to discuss this critical topic with your child.

Tim Cuneo, Superintendent
I wish I could tell you that Santa Monica-Malibu is the only school district having to send out such letters these days, but they aren't.  The "choking game" seems to be impossible to eradicate and affects every part of the country.

Superintendent Cuneo's letter is a good one.  It is informative and helpful for those families -- and it's probably a lot of them -- who have never heard of the choking game.  It doesn't deal with the traumatic grief that the community is dealing with, but I have no way of knowing if he, or the school, are dealing with that in other ways. The other thing it doesn't deal with, because it can't, is the thought running through most parents' minds when they read it:  If this kid didn't get the message, how can you guarantee that my kid will?

My 11-year-old and I have had many conversations about various dangers of adolescence over the years.  I'm a big believer in having the conversation well before you think the kid needs it because a) they will need it earlier than you think they will and b) when they need it, they won't want to have the conversation.  One of the earliest ones was about inhalants.  I pointed out to her that sniffing things makes you feel high because it replaces the oxygen in your brain with the chemicals in whatever you're sniffing, and she immediately saw that that could be a bad situation -- your brain needs oxygen.

The choking game presents a whole new issue in prevention, however.  In order to engage in the choking game, you need to be willing to intentionally deprive your brain of oxygen.  It's hard enough to get kids to see the dangers of inhalants.  How do you get them to stop doing something (or not start doing something) that ought to be much more obvious?

I know that, as my daughter enters adolescence, she will undoubtedly make choices that are not what I want for her.  She will do things that I could tell her would turn out badly.  That is part of growing up.  I have to hope that the discussions we've had -- about drugs, eating disorders, inhalants, alcohol, sex and, yes, the choking game -- will prevent her from trying those particular things.  Mostly, I have to hope that when she makes her bad choices, they aren't so bad that they're irretrievable.  I have to hope that they aren't so bad she winds up dead.  When I read something like this, however, I find myself wondering if this boy's parents had all those conversations too, and if they had the same hopes.  Our best as parents is not necessarily enough, and I don't know about you, but it scares me.

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Colleen said...

I have discussed discussions with kids (at various exercise classes, etc, with other moms), and some of the moms, otherwise intelligent women have *actually* said that they don't want to bring this stuff up with their kids "for fear it will give them ideas".

I told them that they WILL get the ideas themselves, if it's sex, their hormones will tell them, for other things, other kids have no qualms about filling them in! The ONLY control we have is giving them more information, science, emotional, moral, everything we can, BEFORE the other kids give them just one side!

But, you knew that I think this already...and we've both seen it work!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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