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Dealing with Youth Suicide: How to talk to your kids

a child holding a backpack in front of a brick building

A young person died recently in our community. Something like this has happened at least every year I've been in practice. This time, the suspected cause of death is suicide. It has increased the talk around bullying, and how to get help. But many families already talk to their kids regularly about kindness, how to treat others, and how to avoid bullying. While this is a wonderful topic, on which I'm happy to share more about, the focus of this article is going to be on a different, more challenging topic: How to talk to your kids about suicide.

There may never be a crisis like this in your community to prompt this conversation, so you may be asking "Should I talk to my kids about suicide?" Yes, most definitely. By the time your student reaches freshman year of High School, they will know at least one person with a mental health struggle. Many students will know of someone who self-harms or has thoughts of suicide. Your kid needs to know how to handle that situation for their own mental health!

I pray there never is a reason to have this discussion! But statistics are showing suicide as the 2nd leading cause of death for kids aged 10-17. For the last ten years. If you haven't run into it yet, you likely will.

Get the facts from a trusted source

  1. Do some research up front about suicide prevention in your area, what resources exist, and what the schools offer. Look into taking a training such as QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer. Our local hospital offers it periodically through the year.

  2. Don't go off of rumors after a loss. Wait for the official statement. Stick to the facts.

  3. Use the word. I know, it's scary. But it's going to make the conversation a heck of a lot easier down the road.

Have a conversation about it with your kid(s)

  1. Be honest & keep it simple. "Susie died, sadly" or "Dave had depression and it ended his life". Don't overcomplicate it.

  2. Refrain from making judgments like "They took the cowards way out" or "they were selfish". If kids believe these things, they may never share their thoughts with others which puts them in a higher risk for suicide. Reframe it: "I'm sad they saw no other way out of pain" or "I miss them and wish they were here still".

  3. Deliver the news calmly & let them ask questions. "If you want to talk about it, or have questions, I'm here for you". Don't make kids responsible for making you feel better in this moment. Focus on their reaction, normalizing grief responses of crying or sadness. And let them ask questions. If they don't ask any, ask them some. "What have you heard about Suzie?" "What do you know about depression? suicide?" "How do your peers talk about these things?"

  4. Give more information as appropriate. There are a lot of myths around suicide circulating still. After asking the questions above, correct some of the myths your kid has likely heard. Here's an excellent article on that topic:

For teens: Make it a teachable moment

  1. Ask them directly if they or a friend have ever had thoughts of suicide. Even statements like "Life is too hard" or "I wish I wasn't here" signal someone needs help.

  2. Ask how they handled it or how they would handle it. Normalize that this is a big, difficult topic and not everyone knows what to do.

  3. Instruct them in the way you want them to handle it. "I want you to tell me (or another trusted adult) if you are feeling that way." "If a friend shares thoughts like that with you, let the teacher, counselor, or their parent know right away." Reassure them that safety and health are a bigger priority than the friend being mad at them for telling.

  4. Include a number of Trusted Adults. Coaches, teachers, pastors, mentors, counselors, or friend's parents are all great options. Sometimes it's easier for kids to navigate this with another adult, and that's okay. As long as help is available to them.

  5. Always, always, ALWAYS share Help Is Available resources. Beyond what is listed above, these include local counselors, emergency departments, helplines, and crisis centers.

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