WHITNEY: Start by listening when teens reveal problems

How do we help a child in their time of need?

That was the question I received in my email after writing about suicide two weeks ago.

The writer described a situation in which one teenager confides a serious problem to another. "As her best friend, and at a similar age, what would you tell her that might help?" he wrote. " Would you just be a good listener? If she wasn’t willing or afraid to talk to an adult, would you tell someone?"

I answered his question with more than a hypothetical "what I would do," because I had a some friends with some serious problems when I was in my teens. But there's a difference between what I did and what I would do given what I know now.

I had friends who confessed sexual abuse, who carried out pregnancies and became teen moms, who struggled with revealing their sexuality and with substance abuse. I joke that I became the mom of my friends sometime during our freshman year of high school because it felt exactly that way sometimes.

In all these situations, I became the active listener and confidante. I heard them, I responded, I offered suggestions. But I didn't act -- I didn't tell anyone about, say, one friend's possible rape or another friend's heroin addiction because I didn't know exactly who to tell. I didn't trust any adult in my life to handle it properly, so I just stood by for emotional support.

Today, responding to the question as an adult who has experienced and witnessed much more in my personal life and my career as a crime reporter, I think I'd be better equipped to deal with my friends' challenges. I've written about domestic and sexual violence more than I'd ever imagined or wished, but because of that, I know organizations like Big Rapids' WISE exist in practically every community. I've written about addiction and treatment, so I know about things like sobriety court, which is offered here in Mecosta and Osceola counties and has taken participants as young as 19, and about rehab resources like Ten Sixteen.

Resources like these existed in my hometown, of course, but I guess in my adolescent naivety I didn't consider them as an option. And I probably felt revealing my friends' problems to anyone would have been a betrayal. It's just that simple, and there isn't a better explanation for my inaction. I just shouldered the burden myself -- something I'm still prone to do -- but I probably needed help too.

My teen years were just 10 years ago, but in many respects, I think young people are better prepared today than I was when I encountered the situations I described with my friends. I think young people are fostering increasingly louder conversations about domestic, sexual and dating violence as feminism comes once again to a place of cultural prominence. Those conversations seems to include advocacy and highlight how to get help. You can see that reflected where young people congregate online on sites like Tumblr or Twitter or Instagram. They're doing this movement right, and sharing is second nature, whether it's sharing problems, encouragement or resources for help. (However, they have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to substance abuse.)

The unfortunate problem is that we have to be prepared to encounter and confront these kinds of problems, especially as parents. We can't afford to go through life thinking these things might not happen to us or our family. We lock our car doors, we buy home insurance policies, we pack extra clothes when we go away for the weekend just in case we need them. But we need also to prepare to respond to situations involving domestic and sexual abuse, or substance addiction, or any kind of tragedy that might require us to lend a support to someone we know).

I don't think I handled any of these situations in the wrong way necessarily. Sometimes all someone wants it to have their voice heard and their hand held. Teen relationships, especially (sadly) among young girls, can be shattered really easily. A display of loyalty might be the best help one young person could give another.

So that's what I'd say -- know where to turn and feel empowered to do so if you can't help them alone, but start by offering your trust and loyalty.