How to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide
Our daughter’s friend (I’ll call her Kari) came to our home on a chilly April afternoon after an altercation with her parents that ended at a police station. She had spent the last year sleeping in a dumpster behind a pizza chain, in a group home, at friends’ houses, and at a psychiatric inpatient center. Our daughter’s bedroom was not the first strange place she had crashed, though it might have been the quietest.
She came with a bag of prescription medication and crisscross-scarred arms. With little explanation from her mom, I spent half an hour deciphering the pill bottles and splitting them for her evening dosage. Before her arrival, we’d received more instructions about what to hide than what to provide: Every knife in our home, all scissors, and all medications needed to be locked up. She was a cutter. She’d already attempted suicide twice. She was 13.
Close to Home
While Kari stayed with us, our inquisitive children watched our every move. At ages 8, 11, and 14, they are already more seasoned than your average suburban kid. They hear about pain and suffering from their therapist dad, and I’ve had to explain more than I’d like about my work in anti-human trafficking.
As believers, we feel called to care for the least of these, the disenfranchised of society. Our family had already hosted an older boy for a few months, who shared his tumultuous childhood in bits and pieces over ice cream and slow dinners. But when my 11-year-old saw me bring the knives in a big bundle to my bedroom, her large doe eyes registered utter confusion. Kari’s threat of self-harm was a brutal introduction to teen suicide.
Months later, we prepared for a new school year of major crossroads: high school, middle school, and third grade. We’d just gotten home from buying binders and pencils. When we turned on the television, video clips from Mork & Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Dead Poets Society flooded the screen. The beloved Robin Williams had taken his life. I wept. And again, I was watched and grilled by my children. “What does that mean, ‘ended his life’? Mom, what’s wrong? Why did he do that?”
That Sunday, our pastor begrudgingly shared news of a copycat suicide. A family friend was found at his computer with a newspaper clipping of Robin Williams nearby. We were shoulder-to-shoulder, older kids wedged between us, hearing every word. This time they learned the word for it. It was no longer just Mom trying to explain the concept of sadness and hurting oneself. Now they know: This hideous phenomenon that intimately entered our home last April is called suicide.
My children were then much more prepared for their first week back to school when the Spanish teacher broke down in tears in front of the class, the police swarmed the halls, and the announcements informed the student body that one of their own, a 13-year-old boy, had stepped in front of an oncoming train. My children returned home a bit numb. Our middle-schooler was affected by the faculty’s response. Our high-schooler processed via social media, as Instagram became a living eulogy, and the newest crowd-call was to wear blue the following day.
Developing a Game Plan
The topic of teen suicide had come to our dinner table once again, the same way pot joined us for dinner when Colorado passed its infamous law and kids who ate marijuana-laced candy filled the hospitals. We’d talked about drugs and alcohol, R-rated films, even the possibility of seeing porn at friends’ homes. But we had not yet talked in depth about the third leading cause of death in adolescents. It was time to stop skirting the issue. We knew we were not insulated from suicide. We needed a game plan.
Our children are well-adjusted and seemingly emotionally healthy. And yet, I’ve entered my daughter’s room at times to find her in such agony and self-loathing that I’ve worried. The depth of her relational pain or self-contempt at age 11 frightens me.
What we’ve learned in preparing and having these conversations with our children is that a foolproof prevention model doesn’t exist. Suicide happens even in the closest of intact families and tempts the most put-together adolescents. Statistics show that close to 20 percent of high schoolers have considered taking their life and 8 percent have tried.
While risk and warning factors are helpful, perhaps the best prevention method is preparing an environment in our homes of open, honest, and difficult discussions. Our game plan was simple, direct, and immediate.
1. Talk About Suicide
The importance of having open dialogue with our children about difficult subjects cannot be overstated. As they hear about cultural icons like Robin Williams, help them digest this reality in an age-appropriate way rather than shielding them from harsh truths. Our 8-year-old was present for the initial conversation about the local boy, but we went much deeper with our 14-year-old in private. With him, we discussed some of the possible underlying causes for why his classmate took his life: perhaps he was bullied, maybe things were really hard at home, he could have struggled with depression or gender identity, or he was caught up in something he feared. My 14-year-old needs to understand the context of suicide to become more self-aware, as well as to know how to be a better friend.
2. Develop a Crisis Plan
Keep it simple so they can remember it. Step 1: If and when they feel horrible, they need to know without a doubt that God is present and hears their cries. Step 2: They need to know we are safe and emotionally available to talk to. Step 3: If they don’t feel they can talk to us as their parents, who will they talk to? Not who can they talk to, but who will they talk to? The night the boy died, we made each of our kids name a person they would talk to if they ever felt they couldn’t talk to us. Our son chose my husband’s best friend. Our daughters chose their grandmother. Hopefully this establishes the expectation that they never walk through despair in isolation.
3. Develop a Crisis Plan for Threats Made by Their Peers
As a counselor, my husband frequently sees teens racked with survivor’s guilt—kids who feel responsible for their friends’ suicides. They need to know that involving safe adults is far more important than protecting secrets. We are always asking our kids about the teacher or school counselor’s involvement in student depression, conflict, and other emotional incidents on school grounds. Just as they named the safe person with whom they would confide if they felt they couldn’t tell us, help them identify a safe adult at school or in church with whom they could share their friend’s threat. Without trying to scare them, we urged our kids to not wait until it is too late.
Framing the Future
Our simple game plan to discuss teen suicide with our adolescents is not meant to be an exhaustive list but a place to begin when confronted with the harsh realities children face. When this difficult subject comes to your family table—through news reports, events at school, or struggling loved ones—make it your goal to build a framework that can help them process this painful issue and can prepare them for future crises.