It’s never easy to deal with the topic of suicide. It’s uncomfortable, it makes us sad, and it’s downright scary. As much as we as parents would rather look the other way, there are some really important conversations you may want to have with kids around this sensitive topic.
For help, we pulled in the expertise of Cosette Taillac, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and the national strategic leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente. She has dealt with the topic of suicide both professionally — as a therapist — and personally as a mom, when a friend of her son’s took his own life as a teen.
When broaching the difficult subject of suicide as a family, she suggests the following tips for parents to help their kids get the most out of the conversation. (There are also great resources to start the conversation at FindYourWords.org.)
1. Let your children lead the conversation.
You will likely have opinions, thoughts, and beliefs that you want your kids to share, but it’s important to put those aside.
“As parents, it can be really easy to launch into a lecture,” Taillac says. “But you want to seek to understand before seeking to be understood.”
A really easy way to do this is by asking questions first. This will help keep the conversation open-ended so your child can be part of it instead of you telling them how they should think, feel, or react.
2. Be age-appropriate.
If you have a 4-year-old and a 14-year-old, the discussions definitely need to be different for each child. Taillac is a mother herself, and she knows from experience how conversations change depending on what’s developmentally appropriate. If you know someone who has been affected by suicide, she offers these tips based on age:
For preschoolers, she recommends having a discussion about how someone close to you was sick and they died, and it makes you sad. For grade school kids, you can start talking about how depression is an illness and you can even die from it. However, it’s important that kids understand that sadness is an emotion everyone experiences.
“Everyone feels sad sometimes. Everyone cries,” Taillac says. “But depression is an actual illness where they don’t feel good about life anymore. Then their brain can mislead them to thinking that they won’t ever feel better — and might want to die.”
As kids get older, the conversations can expand, helping them understand how it could affect people they know or even them personally. Be sure to ask questions; things like, “Have you felt sad or depressed? Do you know someone who has? Have you ever talked about it with your friends?” are all good and positive conversation-starters.
In all age groups, Taillac says it’s important to end the talk on a positive tone. “Ask questions. Give information. Check for understanding — then, leave them with hope.”
3. Be part of the dialogue.
If you have kids over the age of 10, then they’re likely seeing everything you are — such as a celebrity’s death from suicide — in the news online or in social media feeds. Instead of just letting your kids consume that information (which can be wrong or inaccurate) on their own, be active in the conversation. Again, this is where asking questions can be really helpful and a good conversation-starter.
“Ask what they’ve heard,” Taillac says. “Then really listen to understand what they’re hearing. This is so important. This will help you identify misinformation, and then talk about it.”
4. Don’t avoid the issue for fear of giving your kids ideas.
Similar to topics around sexuality and sex education, Taillac says parents often avoid tough topics like depression or suicide because they’re afraid it will give their kids ideas.
“This is actually opposite of what happens,” Taillac says. “Lack of understanding and knowledge is what can lead to risky behavior.”
5. We all need to do our part to reduce the stigma.
“Almost all of our families have someone that is struggling at any given time with a mental health condition,” Taillac says.
The statistics are enormous. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that one out of every five adults in the United States, experience mental illness in a given year, and roughly one in five youths will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life. Taillac says she hopes that conditions like depression can be talked about as openly as things like heart disease or diabetes.
“For a long time, we’ve misunderstood that these brain conditions are also health conditions,” she says. “It’s not about someone not trying hard enough. It’s a medical condition that needs treatment.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Find more resources at FindYourWords.org.
This story was written by Stacy Tornio, a big fan of nature, books, and the Oxford comma. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her two kids and runs the website DestinationNature.com to encourage families to get outside.