There are few things as scary to a parent as the idea that your child at some point might consider taking his or her own life. And when something is terrifying, we understandably avoid it. However, when it comes to suicide, we must do the hard work of talking about it with our children. Youth mental health is important and suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. Skipping the suicide conversation is like taking your child to a pool without reviewing water safety because discussion of drowning makes you uncomfortable.
But a lot of what keeps parents from talking to their kids about suicide is myths. I know it’s scary. No, you aren’t qualified. But welcome to parenting. Buckle up. Since September is National Suicide Prevention Month (U.S.), it’s as good a time as any to get started. As you consider having this conversation, here are 4 myths that should not stop you from talking to your kids about suicide.
1. My child is too young to talk about this.
It would be great to say that you shouldn’t talk with your young child about suicide. I think we’d all like that. But sometimes, we don’t get to make that call. Regardless of age, if someone close to the child such as a loved one or neighbor commits suicide, you can’t avoid the conversation. Of course you need to keep the child’s age in mind. Children 8 and under probably don’t need details. Once a child reaches middle school, a conversation specifically about suicide should occur. By the time your child is in high school, he or she is talking about it. The question is, are you part of that conversation?
2. Talking about suicide might make it more likely my child will attempt it.
Talking with our children about suicide actually decreases the likelihood they will attempt it. Of course discussing suicide raises a fear for us. A child may not have been thinking about suicide but by talking about it, we’ve placed that thought in his or her mind. Did I just make it more likely my child might consider suicide? Nope. In fact, studies show it’s likely to do the opposite. Talking with our children about suicide actually decreases the likelihood they will attempt it. So have the conversation. Here are a few suggestions for questions you can use to get started:
Do you ever struggle with feeling down? If so when? What helps? What makes it worse?
I know this is tough to talk about, but it’s important. Do you and your friends ever talk about suicide? Have any of them ever shared that they’ve thought about it? Do you ever think about it?
Have you heard about the show “13 Reasons Why”? What do you think about it? Do your friends or teachers ever talk about it?
Have you ever experienced bullying? What was that like? How did that make you feel? What could you do if someone is bullying you or someone else?
3. I don’t know enough to talk about this
You don’t have to be a youth mental health expert. The key to talking with your children about suicide is creating an environment in which they feel safe talking about what they are feeling. Work to suspend judgment and avoid telling them that their feelings are wrong. Communicate your love for them and desire for them to feel comfortable talking about how they are feeling.
4. I don’t need any help with this.
Suicide is frighteningly common. The associated benefit (if you can call it that) is that many people are working to offer help. Utilize those resources, including the 24/7 National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A simple Google search also will yield lots of helpful tools. And get to know your child’s guidance counselors, who serve as an incredible partner with parents when it comes to dealing with issues like these.
Talking with your child about suicide also segues seamlessly into discussions about mental health. Use this opportunity to work to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. Just as other parts of our bodies are susceptible to illness, so too are our brains. When we experience depression or thoughts of self-harm and suicide, we should take the same care as we do when we have the flu or even cancer. We may see a doctor, take medicine, practice self-care (getting adequate sleep, eating well, etc.). Mental health is no different.
No, talking with your child about suicide is not easy, but it is essential. Please don’t leave it to someone else. You won’t do it perfectly, but you don’t have to. Just do it lovingly.
Sound off: What other suggestions do you have for talking with a child about suicide for the first time?
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Do you ever feel sad for no reason? What do you do when that happens?”