A few weeks ago I heard the heartbreaking news that a close family friend’s 18-year-old son had committed suicide. This hurt my heart so much that I felt angry. I sat in suffering for the family that afternoon, asking myself what most people first ask, “Why?”
I answered myself, “He was doing so well . . . he had a successful future ahead of him . . . he seemingly found the love of his life . . . he had a close circle of friends . . . Everything appeared to be good from the outside looking in.”
I told myself all the same presumptions we tell ourselves to justify reasons for living. But to this young man, they weren’t enough. So for the remainder of the afternoon, I analyzed all that I know or presume to know about suicide.
Yes, suicide can stem from mental health issues, but it can also be unpredictable. Yes, suicide can come with warning signs but often times it doesn’t.
So with certainty what I concluded was that:
1) Death by suicide is no doubt earth-shattering to those left behind.
2) Suicide is a growing epidemic among our young people; and
3) It needs to be talked about!
But how do we start talking with our children and teens about something so graphic, so misunderstood, and so scary?
Research shows that talking about suicide with youth does not create ideas to commit death by suicide nor does talking about it encourage suicide, thus leading us to understand suicide is safe to talk about.
I strongly believe it’s time that we openly talk about suicide with our children and teens to the point that it’s comparable to the milestone talk of “the birds and the bees” or as common as “What did you learn in school today?”
As a mother who has taken the journey alongside a child with depression and anxiety, I will admit that it’s a frightening ride. We can be told what to look for, but even the most attuned and certifiably trained professionals, like myself, can miss the signs of suicide even in the most open of parent/child relationships.
Suicide is a quiet and often times secret killer. We know that all who commit death by suicide are depressed, but not all who are depressed commit death by suicide. To simply assess our children and youth for depression is not enough to also assess for suicide.
So how do we become the experts in protecting our children?
I currently have two known roles to my own children, who range in ages from 12 to 20; I am first and foremost a ‘mom,’ and as an occupation, they know I am a mental health therapist. My children will tell anyone that they prefer me as ‘mom.’ So, in this article I prefer to share with you from my ‘mom approach,’ with some therapist influence, of course.
The day after I learned of the tragic news, I pulled my children together and informed them of the loss of this young man who died by suicide. I did not give specifics, although they were full of questions that I could not answer.
But I was curious, so I asked them, “How often do you think suicide is something we should talk about?” There was an awkward silence, followed by a couple shoulder shrugs, ending with a unanimous, “I don’t know.”
I believe this is our first mistake as parents. Just as suicide is as I described, a quiet and often secret killer, so are we responsible for keeping it quiet and secret. It’s not shameful for people to feel a desire to not be a part of the living when living gets extremely tough. It’s actually quite normal. But how some choose to act on it is where lines get crossed.
Our children first need our assistance to decipher what is real and what is not. We need to assist them in normalizing feelings such as disappointment, fear and anxiety, apprehension, failure, and making mistakes. I believe it is good for our children to hear us as parents humanize our existence and admit to our own feelings.
Comic books, movies, music, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter . . . these social and media outlets our kids see and use every day, all depict pictures of fantasy and/or of other people only letting anyone in on the “good” parts of their lives. These outlets reek of unrealistic ideas of abilities, strengths, appearances, talents, etc. — of which most are beyond our own reach. It simply appears as though everyone else has a so-called perfect life. So, when our children cannot obtain what it is that looks easy, they feel defeated, worthless, unable to achieve what appears to be granted to others.
Secondly, we need to model and communicate to our children that we all have struggles, challenges, conflict, and even times when we will hit “rock bottom.” We need to reassure our children that despite what they feel amidst tribulation or set backs, that what they are going through is temporary and with time, they WILL be okay. This is called building ‘resiliency’ (article coming soon).
When I met with my children that day to talk about suicide, I created a vivid picture for them so that they could better understand how temporary feelings of doubt and despair can be. I illustrated a cold winter morning when the weather takes a turn for the worst and creates the first snow storm of the season, all during the morning commute.
The storm comes in so quickly, blinding drivers and leaving inches of snow and ice on the streets and highways. The storm swirls through town creating a few hours of chaos, but to those who are driving in it, it seems endless.
The storm causes anger and fear in the drivers, frustration, confusion, and in some, the feelings of simply just quitting. Just stopping where the fear took hold right there in the middle of the street, they turn off their engines and just quit.
All the while, accidents occur. People are known to flip car or run into other cars. The damage to people and vehicles is inevitable. But, I continued, all at once it seems the snow stops, the sun comes out, the streets clear up, and the ice thaws. People gather their wits about themselves and they’re able to drive like the storm never happened.
So much damage can be done in such little time, and then in a blink, everything is all better. There’s no rhyme or reason to the weather. It just comes in, makes a mess, and then disappears as quickly as it started.
I explained to my children, much like the chaos ensued by a winter storm, so will we have storms in our lives. Damage and chaos and feelings of giving up will no doubt occur, but the storm is not permanent. The clouds will clear, the struggle will stop, and the day will go on.
Third, our children need help learning and practicing tools in navigating the tough times. Back to my winter storm metaphor: I asked my kids, “How could the drivers be better prepared for the storm?”
Their answers: Snow tires, skills, training, acceptance of the weather, call Mom, patience, positive thinking, need of a cell phone to call someone, dress warmly, have a BIG car, know someone to call to get you out of the ditch, have a person who will listen when it’s all over.
Do you see where I’m going with this? I was helping my children be better prepared for a snow storm. I asked them, “Like the storm, how can you be prepared for the days in your life that you think you might want to quit or kill yourself?”
I also asked such questions as, “What can you tell yourself now? What’s the (metaphoric) weather like for you right now? Can it change? Will it get worse? Will it be permanent? Can it get better? Who can you call? What skills can you have? What training do you need? HOW CAN I HELP YOU?”
I don’t know about you, but I have the “birds and the bees” talk with my children every chance I get. I wonder if we were to talk “winter storms” and suicide with our kids at every chance we get, will we better prepare them for when the time comes that they need to know what they’re capable of?
How can we as parents provide them with that metaphoric, ‘BIG car’ (imagine big 4-door Buick or SUV in your mind’s eye), so they can endure the temporary ‘storm’ unscathed?
From parent to parent, you cannot talk too much with your kids. Be real with them, answer their questions, add empathy to your concerns, assess their ‘storms’ often, be available to be their first call while in the “storm.” Talk about suicide. Name it what it is. Talk and talk and talk.
I’ve spoken from the mom approach, next is my bit of sharing from a mental health therapist’s perspective. From therapist to parent, there may be developmental appropriateness for details of suicide, but there is no age too early to start.
Here are a two online resources:
Our local, Spokane County 24/7 behavioral health crisis line, First Call for Help, is 509-838-4428.
You, as parent, are the expert into the life of your own child and you know best at what they’re able to process. It is up to you to gauge the degree at which you share, but I definitely encourage you to start today!
I also believe it’s necessary to understand the vocabulary we use in conversations with kids. I’ve observed adults and therapists alike, having hesitation using the term “killing yourself” when we ask a child or youth about suicide. “Do you want to hurt yourself?” will conjure a different answer than that of, “Do you want to kill yourself?”
Hurting self causes pain, while killing self ends pain. If we want accurate answers, we must ask accurate questions. Please don’t hesitate being precise with your language.
Lastly, if you feel emotions while talking with your child, profess those feelings. Children need to hear descriptions to the feelings they can see or feel in themselves and others. If you feel awkward, or nervous, or anxious or scared, etc., name those feelings. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable with your child, you will cultivate the sense of safety for them to be vulnerable with you. This is priceless.
I’m here for you. It’s okay that ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ approaches sometimes don’t turn out like we hope. Just taking the first steps to start the dialogue about suicide is already a success!
What I’ve found while writing this article is that there is an alarmingly and disappointingly small amount of resources out there for parents regarding talking to kids about suicide. If you have tried talking with your child about suicide and feel as if there’s more to their life than you’re being let in on, please reach out to me and we can set up a risk-free counseling consultation appointment today. I can help!
Thank you for allowing me in on your parenting journey!
Karrie Stewart, MSW, LICSWA, MHP
“Me,” courtesy of Adam Eperjesi, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Father and son,” courtesy of Free-Photos, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Boys,” courtesy of ajay bhargav GUDURU, pexels.com, CC0 License