Of the myriad difficult things, you have to talk about with your children, suicide is probably not one of them. We are fortunate that kids do not die very often, but the second leading killer of young people is suicide. Talking about suicide—and about general emotional and behavioral health—is something that every parent of truly healthy kids must do.
Part of the discomfort in talking about these issues likely comes from not knowing how to begin. Many parents think that there must be all kinds of ways to go wrong when approaching difficult conversations with kids; the truth is there are simple, effective ways to stay on track.
First and foremost, you have to get yourself into a place where you are ready to hear things that might make you sad or angry or disgusted or otherwise emotionally off-balance. Think about all those things that you kept secret from your parents at your kid’s age. Then think about how uncomfortable you were when your parents tried to talk to you about them. That’s what we’re dealing with here. You have to be ready to handle whatever you might discover without immediate reaction. This does not mean that you will not process your thoughts and emotions, just that they will play second fiddle for a while. By doing this, you do two vital things. First, you create a safe context in which your child will be more likely to express herself fully. Second, you model the appropriate way to deal with things that might initially appear overwhelming.
Three simple (perhaps not easy) things to do:
One of the most important—and most difficult—things to do when talking about emotionally-charged topics is to validate the kid’s feelings. A person’s emotions cannot be right or wrong and must be accepted without judgment. Knowing this and living it are two different things. It’s hard to let someone you love to express feelings that seem alien and dangerous without trying to talk her out of them. Remember, your emotional reaction is less important now. You must listen to your kid, allow her to express emotions without judging them, and be able to say things like, “I hear you when you say that you are really sad and that you want to die. Please, tell me more about that …” and behave like you mean it.
It’s difficult to be both validating and honest at the same time, but just about everything about being a good parent is hard. You will manage. For example, after she tells you how she feels – and after you have validated her emotions – she might ask something like, “Are you mad at me?” or “Are you sad about what I said?” It is good at that point to tell her how you really feel without placing priority on your emotions or discounting hers. For example, you might say, “Yeah, I’m very sad to hear you say that because I love you. Right now, what you are feeling is more important to me, so let’s talk more about that.”
It’s important to model appropriate responses. Being direct about the issue of self-harm and suicide is very important. One of the most effective ways that mental health professionals help those who are suicidal overcome crises is to encourage them to be open and honest with their difficult thoughts and feelings. Talking about suicide directly takes away its power, its mystery, its stigma, its mojo. Understanding that suicide is one (ill-conceived and ineffective) way of coping with pain and anguish is the first step along the path to helping someone become well again. Parents can start this process by being direct, by using words like “suicide,” “kill yourself,” and “death.” Let’s face it, there’s no way to turn a kid off faster or to get her to take you less seriously than by being unable to say the dangerous and important words.
One of the best things about this advice is that it can be practiced with the other difficult topics on your list. Use it to approach words like “penis” and “vagina” or whatever the kids are calling them these days, to discuss the appropriate uses for those things, and for subjects like values regarding friendship and school and bullying and drugs. As with all things, you will become more skilled with practice.
Go … talk to your kids …
For more information on this topic, please visit the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide and the American Association of Suicidology.