Talking to Kids about Suicide
I’ve been struggling with some fairly heavy emotions recently as a result of some youth suicides that have hit close to home. First, I learned of a 12-year-old girl at our local elementary school who took her life because of ongoing bullying. Days later, I read about a young boy of the same age who shot himself at a Boy Scout summer camp. Immediately, I was struck with grief and disbelief that children so young (and younger) even know what suicide is. How could they feel compelled to make this decision and have the capacity to follow through with it? It feels easier to digest that a grown man, like my 64-year-old father, could pursue suicide after living a full life and experiencing most of what it had to offer. But, to think that a child saw this as their only option is just disheartening – and frankly – shocking.
The reason this has hit me so hard is because I am seven months pregnant with our first child – a girl. In addition to the overwhelming happiness I feel, I am juggling a lot of worry and anxiety over how the “S” word will be addressed in our home in the years to come. In the immediate wake of reading these stories, I started to question my being so proactive about suicide awareness and putting my story out there to be “Googled” by anyone. Would it give her any “ideas?” Many survivors have the ability to decide if, how and when they want to share their stories. But, mine is out there for the world to find, as are the circumstances surrounding my dad’s death, thanks to the news articles about it. The ability to just tell my daughter it was a heart attack isn’t really an option for me. I started to worry about the impact this could have on her and thought about just shutting down everything I’ve been doing. Would she feel ashamed and become depressed when finding out? Would she ever be bullied about it if word got out? How will I explain this to her? And, is there anything I can do to prevent her from being bullied? What if I pick out the wrong colors for her room or style of clothes? I panicked. Even though she isn’t here yet, I feel like I am already trying to create this bubble of happiness and safety for her and protect her from the troublesome things in this world, like suicide and stories of it. Deep down, this is because I worry I could never stomach another loss this traumatic in my life and try to guard myself against it in any way possible. I never thought my dad could/would do this, either…
These feelings were so bothersome to me that I sought out the expertise of those who have dealt with children and suicide – primarily those who help children cope after they lose someone close. I asked a lot of pointed questions – “Does hearing about suicide give them ideas or fantasies?” “Do they become depressed when they hear/talk about it?” “How am I supposed to approach this topic as a parent?”
I experienced some relief in hearing their responses. For one, I learned that being so proactive could be used to my advantage and I could be a role model. While I hope this discussion doesn’t come up for another decade, I am demonstrating that I faced a truly awful tragedy in my life and that instead of shutting down or hiding behind it, I am turning it into a positive and helping others. I am showing that you can find the light at the end of a tunnel and work through it. I am showing her that I am taking a stand for a cause that needs strong voices and advocates and providing resources where there are few. Hopefully, I am also showing her that we can have an open dialogue about this and any topic that arises in her life. I now know how to be more vigilant in watching for cues that she’s not acting like herself and can help to intervene, if needed…
Another suggestion I received for talking to kids about suicide is to actually pull up my searchable content one day for her so that she doesn’t find it herself and to talk her through it. This way, the information will come from a truthful, trusted resource and I can be there to answer questions.
A few other things I learned:
- It was rare that these experts saw mentally-stable children fanaticize about death or suicide after talking about it or learning of a loved one’s passing, nor did they try to hurt themselves. Adolescents might be more susceptible. But, talking about it doesn’t implant ideas. By talking about it with children proactively, they know they can trust you and come to you with their concerns. It might remain mysterious if they are left to wonder or look into it on their own.
- Unlike adults, young kids don’t have the stigma associated with suicide, so it doesn’t feel as shocking to them. At age 5, 6 or 7, they seem less concerned about the method of death and more interested in knowing if the loved one was ever going to come back, or if they were in heaven.
- With really young kids, the experts frame up the death as dying from a sickness in the brain. With older kids, they explain that their loved one died on purpose. By around 8 or 9-years old, kids can begin to understand suicide.
- Kids do Google novel things, so if your family’s suicide story is a public one, showing them the search results could be a part of your discussion, if that feels appropriate.
- This is a matter of personal preference, but this conversation could begin whenever the child asks why so and so isn’t around anymore, or why they don’t have a grandma/grandpa, etc. versus bringing it up proactively one day. The discussion can then be tailored to the age and developmental appropriateness of the child. Not everything has to come out at once if the child is really young. If they ask again in later years, more information could be shared. For example, if a six-year-old asks what happened to uncle so-and-so, you could say that he died from a sickness in his brain and then answer the innocent questions that follow (like, he isn’t coming back, unfortunately). If the child is older and asks, you could expand to how he died on purpose from this sickness and answer those follow up questions with more details.
- Maintaining this open line of communication and being clued in to the child’s life is important if they have learned of a bullying-related suicide or are a victim of bullying themselves. I have heard that some schools are using the phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” now, which I don’t necessarily agree with. But, letting children know they can talk to you about anything and ask questions and explore options for help with you might help to bring them more comfort.
- It’s always an option to enlist the help of a third party expert to help with this discussion and navigate the child’s questions and concerns.
The idea of even having to talk to kids about suicide is uncomfortable and bothersome. I am upset that my dad’s actions have put me in a position to have to talk with my child about this one day and sometimes wonder if he ever thought about that. I am guessing not. I’m somewhat relieved that I am already preparing for it with a practiced approach. One of the experts I spoke with said that discussing sex and death are the two topics parents dread most, but the more open and trusted you can become about them, the better. Have you had a conversation with any young people in your life about the loss of a loved one to suicide? What worked and what did they struggle with?
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Image from New York Daily News.