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Uncomfortable, Necessary Conversations :: How to Talk to your Kids about Suicide

Yesterday, it happened. We got a call that we neither expected, nor were prepared for. 

One of my son's friends survived a suicide attempt. For the record, my son is a young pre-teen. 

This opened up a lot of questions for us: Should we tell our son? How do we answer the questions that he will inevitably have? How do we provide support without drawing unwanted attention to a family struggling to cope? 

In truth, none of us were ready for any of those conversations. In reality, we had no choice but to begin them with as much transparency as possible. 

We didn't want to freak him out.

We didn't want to push him into having to think like an adult - about dark things like suicide.

Most of all, we were scared of saying the wrong thing. 

I told my son what had happened, and the dialogue began. I prayed for the right words, but like everything in parenting, I second guessed myself the whole time. 

What happened? I was honest. He was understandably confused. For a kid whose biggest upset in life is restricted video game time, suicide was - and still is - a BIG concept to grasp. 

Why would his friend do that? Initially, I didn't know. Later, I learned what I had suspected: Bullying. That led to more discussions about compassion. We talked about what it might be like to be in a place so dark that the only perceived way out is to end one's life. I'm not going to lie - it got heavy. 

Why didn't anyone stop him? That was a hard one to answer, because every time we saw this kid, he was smiling from ear to ear. He did not present himself as "someone who was suicidal" - and yes, I'm using quotes intentionally here. That launched us into a conversation about friendship, support, and prevention.

I didn't know all the answers to the questions my son had. I did my best to be authentic and straightforward, so that my son would understand that sometimes, even grown ups don't know things. 

Here's what I discussed with my son (for more details on intervention, check here):

  • If a friend mentions ANYTHING that makes your mind go there, GO THERE. Ask that difficult question. Are you thinking about suicide/hurting yourself? If the answer is "no," you may freak them out for a moment. But if the answer is "yes," you may have the opportunity to save a life. 
  • Recognize that if the answer is "yes," you need to tell an adult as soon as possible. The issue is not yours alone to fix, no matter how much you want to fix it.
  • Don't shrug off statements like "No one would notice if I was gone" or "Nobody cares about me. I don't want to be here anymore."  These may be cries for help to find one person in the entire world who cares. Be that person.
  • Don't promise you won't tell anyone. While you don't want to break a friend's trust, you also don't want to hide a secret that may result in a life lost. You'll feel far worse if you knew about a friend's suicidal thoughts and kept it to yourself - especially if your friend acts on them.
  • Don't support bullying of any type - even as a bystander. Exercise compassion. Bullying is almost always more about the bully than the victim, but the scars on the victim are long lasting. 

For parents:

  • Remind your children that they can tell you about any of their feelings. Reassure them that there is absolutely nothing they can tell you that you cannot handle and that nothing will make you ever love them any less than you do right now. 
  • Don't judge or gossip about someone who has attempted suicide (or their family). Engage in dialogue that respects the family. Model compassion for your children. They are watching you to help make sense of things.

It is important to know that as you have these conversations, there will be discomfort. If your child is like mine, it may take a few days to fully process and ask more questions. There may be fear. There may be disruptive behavior. That is totally normal, I promise. 

The critical thing is that you're providing your child with awareness, support and love. If you or a loved one are in a situation that warrants immediate help, here are some resources for you:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)  TTY 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)

The Trevor Project. 1-866-488-7386 or text "TREVOR" to 1-202-304-1200 (available M-F from 3PM to 10PM Eastern Time

Crisis Text Line. Text START to 741741

Not OK App. A free "digital panic button" created by teens to reach out to trusted contacts.

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, press 1, or text 838255, or TTY 1-800-799-4889

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

National Hopeline Network: 800-442-HOPE (4673)

Dial 911 if you need immediate help




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