How we talk about suicide with kids is fraught with misconceptions. But as difficult as these conversations might be, our willingness to listen and be direct with our kids can mean the difference between life and death.
According to The Jason Foundation, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 14 year olds and has increased among this age group by more than 150 percent since 1981. For middle school and high school students, it’s the second leading cause of death.
Here are six common myths about discussing suicide with kids of all ages.
Myth: Talking about suicide gives children ideas.
Fact: Talking to kids about suicide is one of the best ways to prevent it. If you’re concerned that your adolescent might be contemplating suicide, ask the question point-blank: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
“Many are relieved that someone finally asked this question,” says high school counselor Kimberly Urenda. “After asking, listen. Don’t judge. Don’t act shocked.”
Avoid minimizing their feelings by saying things like “Oh, you don’t really feel that way” or “You’re just sad.”
Urenda advises, “Tell them you care about them. You love them and you will get them help.” Seek support from a school counselor or another mental health professional in the community.
Myth: Suicide is something you shouldn’t talk about with younger children.
Fact: While the subject isn’t an easy one to discuss, “I believe you should always be honest and open with any age,” says school counselor Carl Crabtree.
If a suicide occurs or is attempted by someone in your family and your youngster only overhears bits and pieces, you’ll miss a teachable moment.
“The child constructs what happened silently without support and a family secret is born,” Crabtree says.
Keep the conversation simple and hopeful with younger children. Answer questions and listen. “In our answers, we should avoid blame and guilt, avoid cliches and focus on the feelings,” Crabtree says.
For example, describe someone who attempts or completes suicide as “sick in their feeling.”
He explains, “Sick is a word children can understand. Also, it opens the door of thinking for children, knowing when we are sick, we go to a doctor to get well.”
During the conversation, discuss what we can do and who we can specifically talk to if we’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or unhappy.
Myth: Suicide only happens to depressed kids.
Fact: There is no single cause for suicide. Usually, suicide is the result of a combination of issues that can range from stress and bullying, isolation, abuse, social media, puberty and family genetics to drug and alcohol abuse.
“The level of an individual’s impulsivity is another risk factor, especially in teens,” Crabtree says.
LGBTQ kids are particularly at risk. According to The Trevor Project, the rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for LGB youth than that of youth who are straight.
“One of the reasons is a lack of acceptance and support by others, sometimes including their families,” says Deb Woodard, associate adjunct teaching professor and school counseling coordinator for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The best thing that families can do is to educate themselves and then have honest and supportive conversations with their children.”
Myth: I can’t prevent suicide by talking to my child. Suicide happens without warning.
Fact: Suicide is preventable. Knowing the signs and keeping the lines of communication open with your child is important. Encourage your adolescent to let an adult know if she notices a peer posting messages on social media that indicate she might end her life.
Take time to connect as a family and with your kids individually. Play video or board games together, bike ride, walk or shop. Conversation and worries often pour out during less intense, companionable moments.
Keep an eye on your teen if a close friend or a classmate commits suicide. Seek professional grief counseling or mental health support for your child to help her process the death.
“Many times, people are searching for a ‘why’ and often lash out at others or blame them. This can be difficult if your child feels they are the ‘cause’ of the suicide,” Urenda says.
Sometimes the outpouring of grief and attention on the victim can spark copycat suicides. Monitor your child’s eating, sleep and self-care patterns, her social media posts and ask her if she is contemplating suicide.
Myth: I shouldn’t take it too seriously when my child comes home from school and says she wishes she was dead. All kids say stuff like that, right?
Fact: Maybe. Maybe not. While your initial reaction might be to say, “Don’t talk like that,” Crabtree recommends pursuing the conversation.
“Say, ‘tell me why’ and then listen,” he advises. “This would be an excellent example of a chance to teach your child coping skills.”
Visit a licensed counselor or psychologist if this pattern of behavior continues.
Myth: I’ve talked to my child about suicide. I think he gets it.
Fact: The truth is, these aren’t one-time conversations. Use books, movies and TV shows to highlight individuals who persevere even under unimaginable conditions. Share your own stories and challenges. Remind your kids that you love and support them. And, even though life can sometimes seem unbearable, it always gets better. ■
Factors that can strengthen a child’s resiliency to suicide include:
- Peer support and close social networks
- School and community connectedness
- Cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide and promote living a healthy lifestyle
- Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict-resolution
- General life satisfaction, good self-esteem, sense of purpose
- Easy access to effective medical and mental health resources
Source: National Association of School Psychologists
Suicide Warning Signs
- Often talks about suicide
- Has a preoccupation with death
- Often takes unnecessary risks in his or her life
- Exhibits behavior that is self-destructive
- Deepening depression
- Makes statements about feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless
Source: The Jason Foundation