Limiting the impact of attempted suicide: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds. Teen depression rates are also on the rise, but the stigma associated with asking for help often prevents teens from coming forward – even if their survival depends on it.
As parents, these are scary and serious statistics. But what kind of parenting help can you provide when statistics become your reality and your child’s friend attempts suicide? The suicide attempt may have failed, but that doesn’t mean your child hasn’t been impacted emotionally. Help yourself first through education and then help your child. The pain and emotional stress that comes with the potential of losing a friend to suicide can be difficult for children to understand and manage. It is critical that parents take the lead in this process. Consider these tips when faced with this difficult situation:
1. Get Educated About Suicide.
The rationale for teen suicide is often misunderstood, and the myths surrounding this severe societal problem must be debunked. First, and foremost, suicide does not discriminate across gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Second, a problem that may seem easily manageable by some people can be overwhelming and insurmountable to others. We all perceive experiences differently, and therefore our responses are different. If a problem seems too big, suicide may appear to be the only option available to a struggling teen. Third, many believe suicide is an act of selfishness – this is not the case. For a struggling teen, suicide may actually be perceived as a way to help minimize the suffering of those left behind. Finally, most teens that consider suicide have often indirectly communicated the plan to someone in his or her lives. Active listening and looking for clues is very important. The bottom line: It’s easy to have pre-conceived notions about what suicide looks like, but the truth is, suicide does not have a singular description.
2. Find The Courage To Start The Suicide Conversation, And Then LISTEN.
Whatever you do, don’t get trapped into thinking you should avoid the conversation! Just because your child has not brought up wanting to talk about the incident, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring it up and give your child the parenting help they need. Try approaching the subject in the following ways:
- “This must be really upsetting for you. I know what an important friend Bobby is. Let’s talk about how you are feeling with this whole thing when some of the shock has worn off? Sound ok to you?”
- “I know you may not want to talk about this right now, but it’s important that we do at some point soon. Let’s set aside some time in the next couple of days to have an honest conversation about how you are doing with all of this. How does this sound to you?”
- “Unfortunately, this may or may not be the only time in life you are exposed to suicide. Let’s talk about it. You are old enough to handle this kind of information and I want to try to answer questions if you have them. Does this sound like a good way for us to move forward?”
Additionally, in an effort to give your child the parenting help they need, it’s always a good idea to talk to your child and encourage them to talk to others also. As a parent, you want to be the safe person that your child can turn to, but you also want to invite your child to open up to others to process this difficult situation. Try saying something like this:
- “I can’t imagine how you are dealing with this. I would really love to talk to you about it – does that sound ok to you? After we talk, maybe you should think about talking to one of the coaches on your team. I know your coach knows Bobby well, and maybe he can help give you some additional thoughts on the whole thing? How does that sound?”
As parents, we all wish we didn’t have to address and try to help our children with this difficult topic. But acknowledging the suicidal act and expressing concern are good ways to talk to your child about their feelings.
3. Normalizing The Suicide Conversation Can Help Give Your Child The Permission Necessary When Faced With An Upsetting Situation.
Talking about suicide with your kids does not plant the idea in their head. In fact, the opposite effect can take hold – talking about the event suggests to your teen that you are not afraid to discuss the topic, so they don’t need to be either. This is exactly the kind of parenting help you can provide and they need at this difficult time. Try these different ways to normalize the conversation with your child:
- “Suicide is tricky and sometimes kids’ brains can trick them into thinking that there is no way out of a difficult situation. When this happens to you, and you feel like your brain is trying to get you to make a bad decision or you really feel stuck, all you need to do is reach out. I can help you.”
- “You have always been a good friend to Bobby. Keep doing all of the normal things you always did – text, snap-chat, face-time – these regular ways of communicating will let him know that things haven’t changed and he can still count on you.”
Children sometimes feel enormous guilt or responsibility in a situation like this. Try this approach to help him/her manage the feeling that he/she never had the opportunity to help his/her friend:
- “Bobby may have felt that there wasn’t an easy way out of a difficult situation he was facing. You should know that there isn’t any problem – regardless of how big it is – that we can’t face together. Can you imagine a situation that you couldn’t tell me about? I hope you know that no matter how big the problem may be, there are always other solutions. I would also never be able to forgive myself if you didn’t come to me first and give me the opportunity to help you. My job is to always be there for you. I might fail. I am human, but to not have the opportunity to help would be devastating.”
Talking about suicide can also indirectly suggest to your child that you are there for them if they ever need to talk to you about suicide or other important mental health concerns. When your child knows that you are not scared to discuss difficult topics, it will make them less intimidated and also instill the idea that they have someone to talk to.
4. Enlist School Administrators, Teachers, Counselors, And Coaches To Help.
Your child probably won’t voluntarily bring up needing or wanting to talk about this unpleasant experience of coming too close to losing a friend to suicide. This is normal and expected. The truth is, if your child doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t take it personally. The important thing is that they feel confident and safe enough to talk to a trusted adult, if necessary. Reach out to their mentors at school and in their extracurricular activities – often these important influencers have already developed a close relationship with your child and can help. Consider these specific ideas:
- Call and/or send an email requesting an in-person meeting with the principal or vice principal (or whatever school administrator you feel most comfortable talking to or have a previous relationship with) and discuss how they can help your child and describe the nature of the children’s friendship. He/she may be able to facilitate conversations between your child and teachers or coaches who your child may feel more comfortable talking to.
- If you don’t automatically know who these helpers might be, don’t worry! Your child has favorite teachers and coaches, so consider developing a list collaboratively with your child and explain why you are doing this.
Providing parenting help in this way gives your child the confidence they need to approach other trusted adults in a difficult situation, if this is indeed what they comfortable doing.
5. Acknowledge The Situation With Concern And Compassion.
If a friend of your child tries to commit suicide, it can leave your own child feeling guilty or helpless. Maybe they feel like they should have seen the signs or been able to help in some way. Acknowledge and validate their feelings, but reassure them that they are not to blame. For example:
- Your child might say, “I never thought he would do something like that – try to kill himself. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of person.” As their parent, you can say, “I am not sure how you are really feeling about this, but hopefully you know that this isn’t your fault.”
- “I can’t imagine how you are dealing with this. I would really love to talk to you about this tonight. Have you talked to any of your friends? What are they saying? Have you heard any new information or know how Bobby is doing now?”
- “You seem to be eating a little less when you are home. How are you feeling? Have you been able to get to sleep ok at night? Have you been eating lunch at school?”
- “This is the second time this has happened at your school in the last six months. It’s upsetting to me, so I can’t imagine how you feel. How are you doing?”
6. Answer Questions About Suicide Honestly And Directly.
At this point in their lives, your teen probably knows more about sex, drugs, and alcohol than you think they do. Social media and their peers have educated them, even though as parents we wish this wasn’t the case. Your child will know if you are lying or burying facts when discussing suicide. Consider these ideas:
- “Death is final. Have you ever had thoughts about suicide? Do you know if any of your other friends are struggling with something serious that could lead them to suicide?”
- “There is so much your generation of teens is faced with that I never had to worry about. Remember, if you ever feel like you are in over your head, please let me know. Nothing is ever worth your life, regardless of how mad you think I might be.”
Tell them the truth. Talk about the facts in a straightforward manner. Talk about their friends and peers and what kinds of issues they might be facing – bullying, gender identity, economic issues, exposure to violence, and divorce are just some of the many issues facing teens today that can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and potential suicidal ideation, planning, or an actual attempt. Help your child recognize these concerns among their friends so they feel more confident in the future.
7. Don’t Be Afraid To Explore Group Or Individual Therapy For Your Child.
You know your children better than anyone on the planet. You have a sense when something isn’t quite right. If your child does not re-engage in their academic and social activities in a reasonable timeframe following their friends’ suicide attempt, reach out to a professional. You know what kind of parenting help they need better than anyone. At The Center for Growth, we have a staff of therapists who can help your child work through this experience, either in an individual or group therapy setting. We also have family therapy services if you think your child might feel safer with you in the room. Call 215-922-5683 for an appointment or visit https://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com to schedule a visit online.
Kids all around us are struggling in silence. People don’t want to talk about it. Be the change and talk with your teen before and especially if this unfortunate event enters your lives. Suicide can be an invisible threat – be an active talker and listener with your kids when it comes to suicide.
If you know someone who is struggling and contemplating suicide, a professional therapist should evaluate him/her immediately.