Of all the conversations parents are uncomfortable having with their children, perhaps none is as daunting as talking about suicide.
Unfortunately, this is a topic that has to be tackled sooner rather than later given that suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10-14 and the second leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Even more disturbing, a nationwide survey of 9th-12th graders in the US revealed that 17% of students admitted to seriously thinking about suicide and 8% acknowledged actually making an attempt to take their own lives.1
The sad truth that parents have to face is that suicide can happen to any child in any family at any time. Even if you are absolutely sure that suicide will never be an issue with your child, odds are high that they will hear about it or someone they know will attempt it.
Talking About Suicide Is Not Dangerous
As a parent, it is imperative that you raise the topic with your child. Some parents are afraid that discussing suicide could trigger suicidal thoughts in their children. Quite the opposite in fact. Research shows that acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce suicide ideation and can actually open conversation about a topic that is considered taboo thus decreasing the stigma surrounding it.2 Talking to your child about suicide in a calm and straightforward way as well as telling them that you love and worry about them and you’d be devastated if they died of suicide, does help.
Furthermore, your child is likely to hear about suicide from others, and your reluctance to speak about it could send the message that the topic is out of bounds. Addressing the issue yourself will ensure that your child gets accurate and correct information and also signals that they can comfortably approach you about it should the need arise.
The upheaval brought about by adolescence gives you another good reason to start talking to your child about suicide early. Adolescence is a period of intense physical, mental and emotional change. Coping with so many changes at once often isn’t easy and this, coupled with increased social and peer pressure, might prove too much for your child to handle. This may then lead to issues such as negative body image, low self-esteem or even substance abuse all of which can contribute to depression and increase their vulnerability to suicide.
Starting a conversation about these issues early on in your child’s life goes a long way towards preparing them for the changes to come.
Initiating the Conversation
- Educate yourself first. Reading up on suicide, its causes and prevention, will give you the confidence to competently approach the subject with your child. You will also be in a position to answer any questions they might have.
- Timing is everything. Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about so it is critical to bring it up at an appropriate time, when you are assured of your child’s attention. For instance, you could broach the topic as you work on a project together or if you see a news segment about suicide on TV.
- Make the conversation age-appropriate. Children have varying ideas of death depending on their age so it’s important to tailor the conversation appropriately. Unlike younger children, teens are typically more knowledgeable about suicide so you can have an in-depth conversation with them.
- Communicate openly. Keep the conversation factual, simple and straightforward when talking about suicide. Also, encourage your child to ask questions and pay attention to what they have to say.
- Don’t focus on suicide methods. Avoid detailed descriptions of suicide methods and instead focus on developing good mental health and positive coping strategies.
- Encourage them to seek help. As you talk to your child about suicide, help them develop coping mechanisms that they can use in case they feel overwhelmed. This could include distracting themselves by going for a walk, playing sports or confiding in a trusted adult.
- Discuss reality vs. fiction. The media and fictional TV shows are often guilty of giving an unrealistic view of suicide and even glamorizing it. Ensure that your child understands that actual suicide can have serious consequences for both survivors and their families.
While talking about suicide with your child may be difficult, the conversation is a crucial one to have.
- Kann L. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2013. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6304a1.htm
- Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291714001299