Talking To Teens About Suicide
Talking To Teens About Suicide
Dear Tacit,

I want to be able to talk to my teens about suicide, but I am afraid that the way I bring it up might get them thinking negatively, and that’s not want I want.  Should I wait until they mention it instead?

Signed: Who Says It First

Dear Who Says It First,

I commend you on wanting to broach this challenging topic with your kids.  It is extremely important that parents are able to bring up these kinds of issues and initiate sensitive (and age appropriate) discussions with their children.  If we wait until a tween/teen brings it up, it might never happen (and that is NOT to suggest that it is not a much-needed discussion).  Leading by example is imperative.  And by bringing up the subject, you are sending the message to your teen that you are emotionally strong enough to have these difficult conversations.  You are letting your teens know that you are willing to talk about the serious things (that you are not too busy or it’s not a burden to you).  You are showing your teen that you do not want to live in a bubble of unawareness and pretend.  You would rather instead know the truth, so you can help.

One of the biggest myths that gets perpetuated about suicide is that anyone who mentions it must be thinking about killing themselves.  Or that simply by suggesting the idea of suicide, we might be planting an idea that the other person would not have thought about otherwise.  Neither idea could be further from the truth.  Mentioning the idea that winter is coming does not make the snow arrive. And asking questions about skiing does not mean your child wants to learn how to ski.  The truth is, by bringing up a conversation about suicide, you are giving your child permission to discuss things they might just be curious about (and want to understand better).  You are allowing them to talk about worries they might have about their friends.  And you are normalizing the fears they are perhaps experiencing with their own feelings but were too afraid to mention/say out loud, in case they upset you (or because they might have thought there was something wrong with them).

When you think it’s time to introduce this conversation with your tween/teen, be sure you feel ready for the conversation yourself.  Talk to your partner or your friends, and work out as much of the nervousness that you might be feeling before you sit down to talk with your child.  Be aware of the education you want your teen/tween to walk away having, after the conversation is over.  Gather your thoughts and know the key points you want to make before the conversation begins.  Get comfortable saying the work “suicide”.  You don’t want to dance around the term or use soft references that might not mean quite the same thing to your tween/teen (like “going away” or “checking out”).  Being direct and clear is best.

And most importantly, come from a place of curiosity.  Ask questions and listen.  Your child should be the one doing most of the sharing (at least, with regard to their feelings/thoughts on the subject), so you can truly understand where they are coming from.  Be ready to be reassuring and non-judgemental, no matter what is said. You are your tweens/teens anchor in this conversation. It’s okay to be surprised and to be unsure of what you want to say (go ahead and admit that honestly to your child – it shows them that it’s okay for them to feel the same way).  But use your own support system afterwards to debrief about your fears and worries or your insecurities about how the conversation made you feel, on a deeper level.  Your child is not there to comfort you in this situation.  If the focus of the conversation becomes your own needs/feelings more than it is about your teen, then you have lost the value of the experience.

Know, too, that there may never be a “best” time to head down this road with your teen/tween – it’s okay to not be feeling perfectly ready with how/when you want to handle it.  But it is so very important that you do it anyway.  Remember that this kind of conversation should never be a one-and-done kind of thing.  It’s crucial to return to these kinds of discussions on a regular basis, as feelings and experiences change quickly in our tween’s/teen’s world.  The more often you can discuss the possibility of suicidal thoughts and feelings, the more you end up leaving the door wide open for conversations pertaining to many other challenging topics (like other mental health issues, drug or alcohol use, sex, etc). You increase the emotional vulnerability that your child is willing to have with you and the awareness they have with themselves.  And this is how depth of connection grows.  You will end up creating a foundation of closeness and trust, for life.

Take care!

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