As parents, we have lots of conversations about safety with our children, especially as they enter their teen years.
We talk about texting and driving, and drinking and driving. We talk about wearing bike helmets and swimming with a buddy. We talk about concussions. We talk about fire and severe weather safety.
But when it comes to the second-most-common cause of death among people ages 15-24, and the third most common among children 10-14, most parents are silent. They don’t talk about suicide.
As parents, we have an obligation to have important conversations with our children. It doesn’t have to be difficult, and you don’t need to have a psychiatry degree to do it well. You just need to be in tune with your child.
The first thing parents should know about talking to their children about suicide is that it doesn’t have to be a sit-down, deep conversation. It’s often a matter of seizing the moment. When my son was in second grade, we were working on his spelling words. After he missed a tough one he said, “I’m going to kill myself.” I knew he didn’t mean it, but it was a great teaching opportunity to ask him what he meant by that, and to talk about what he was really feeling.
Those opportunities might be something that has happened at school, something you see in the news, or even a scene from a TV show or movie.
Please understand these two myths about suicide:
Myth 1: Talking to your child about suicide will plant a seed in their minds that they have the option of killing themselves.
Truth: There is no evidence this is true. That seed is already there. You need to talk about it.
Myth 2: Everyone who has suicidal or self-harm thoughts has a diagnosable mental illness.
Truth: In fact, the majority of people who complete suicide have no history of mental illness, and the vast majority of young people who attempt suicide don’t plan for long periods of time or give away belongings, like older adults might.
If you suspect your child is facing some tough times, and even might be considering suicide, then it is time to ask them about it. If you ask what’s wrong, or even if they have thought about suicide, you’re likely to be met with a shoulder shrug and an “I don’t know.” That’s code for “I don’t want to talk about it,” or they might assume that if something is wrong, they will be in trouble or admitted to the hospital.
It’s so important as parents that we normalize feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety or even self-harm. It’s perfectly natural, especially during times of high stress, to have feelings of wanting to give up or die. It doesn’t mean we want to kill ourselves – it just means life is too much for us to cope with that that particular moment.
This is particularly true for children and teens in today’s age of social media. It used to be kids could get away from bullying situations or other unpleasant childhood experiences when they came home, or they could hang up the telephone. Now, with social media ever-present on their cell phones, it’s possible for them to be constantly bombarded with harassing messages. It just doesn’t stop.
If your child doesn’t share his or her feelings immediately, let them know the door is always open. Form an alliance with your kid. Let them know it’s always OK to talk to you. Nobody wants to feel sad, and you’re there to help them feel better.
One tactic I sometimes use when talking to children or teens who won’t tell me what’s going on is to say, “OK, here’s what I think is going on.” I may tell them I assume they’re having sex, doing lots of drugs and are part of a human trafficking ring. Of course, their problems are usually not that bad, so they might be more willing to open up when they realize I’m going to assume the worst until they tell me otherwise.
If someone tells you they are having suicidal thoughts then asking the following questions may be a helpful next step.:
- Do they have a plan? (the method by which they would commit suicide)
- Do they have the means to carry out the plan? (access to that method, i.e., a firearm, pills, etc.)
- Do they have intent? (the desire to actually carry out the plan)
If you believe any of those factors may be in place for your child, don’t freak out about the situation. That will probably just make them shut down more. Instead, just provide safety and supervision for them.
Don’t let them be in their room alone with the door shut; ask them to leave the door open. Offer to watch a movie or do something together.
Also, deny access to anything in your home that they might use to harm themselves. Make sure firearms are locked away, or take them out of the house entirely. Lock away all pills – even Tylenol can be lethal in large doses. It can be as simple as putting pills in a tool box with a padlock on it.
Not all children or teens who have thoughts of suicide require mental health services. You know your child better than anyone else does. There isn’t a litmus test, so use your gut.
If you believe your child would benefit from mental health services, there are wonderful resources in the community to help them. Calling the COMCARE Suicide Prevention Hotline at 316-660-7500 can be a first step to connecting to those resources.
The most important thing to remember is this: Not talking about suicide is not OK. Ignoring it is not an option. After all, when it comes to a child who completes suicide, there are no do-overs.