Talking Openly About SuicideA Closer Look at How to Talk About Suicide
Suicide is an inescapable and alarming feature of the modern landscape that’s affecting those as young as ten and eleven. How do we counteract this negative trend? One way is to start talking. Older people need to establish regular lines of communication and connection with younger people. More than anything else, what’s required is a network of support strong enough to catch and hold the young and vulnerable before they start sliding toward the conviction that life isn’t worth living.
This conversation needs to take place on three different levels: cultural, social, and personal. Let’s take a closer look.
Cultural: Suicide as a Reality in Our Society
Adolescents, with their raging hormones and emotional ups and downs, have always been susceptible to self-destructive thoughts and feelings. Today’s entertainment and social media only exacerbates this natural tendency. Under the circumstances, parents have no choice except to adopt a proactive approach.
Once you’ve come to terms with the disturbing truth that suicide is now a normal part of the cultural scene, you’ll be in a position to confront it. And it would be best if you got started right away. You can begin with these steps:
The first item of business is to educate yourself and your children. Take a look around and get a feel for the lay of the land. Ask your kids, “What’s going on at school?” Find out if they have friends who’ve been thinking or talking about suicide. Discuss the subject openly with all of your children, even those who don’t seem to be at risk. Do this as a matter of course, just as you would with sexuality and sex education. It’s never too soon to begin.
Create a home environment based around a family identity and shared values. Get involved in your children’s lives. Share meals together as frequently as possible. Be open, honest, and vulnerable. Have a weekly, biweekly, or monthly “date” or one-on-one time with each of your children. Help them feel comfortable about sharing their thoughts and impressions with you.
Adopt Realistic Goals
Realize what you can and can’t do. The world is a perilous place, and you can’t expect to protect your children against all dangers at all times. You can, however, help prepare them for the negative experiences they’re likely to face in life. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good parent. So don’t let worries of embarrassment or failure prevent you from talking with your kids about suicide.
Model Stress Management
Model and teach healthy, positive strategies for dealing with disappointment, disillusion, depression, and stress—things like prayer, scriptural meditation, exercise, or cultivating a hobby. Talk with your kids about your own ups and downs and help them see that, no matter how bad things look, tomorrow is always another day. Remember our discussion on self-care?
Make a Plan
Establish a family crisis intervention plan. Make sure everyone knows the details before a real crisis arises. Think of it as a kind of fire drill for stress management. Find ways of communicating negative feelings to others and dealing with them before they get worse. Practice these steps together at least three to six times a year so that everyone in the family is comfortable with them.
We want you to hear this message loud and clear: Suicide is now “normal” in our society, so be proactive as a parent, and talk often with your kids.
Social: When a Friend or Family Member Attempts or Commits Suicide
Given the current cultural climate, it’s more than likely your kids will eventually come into contact with someone who is thinking about suicide. They may even lose a close friend or family member this way. When such things happen, it’s important as a parent to be available with wise and understanding counsel. You can maximize the effectiveness of those conversations by keeping the following in mind:
Know the Signs
Be aware of the various warning signs suggesting an individual might be in danger of killing himself. Keep an eye out for symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, emptiness, withdrawal, anger, and significant changes in mood or behavior. The S.L.A.P. acrostic in this section can help you evaluate the level of danger.
Talk About It
When a friend or family member has attempted suicide or died this way, sit down and talk with your children about it. Give them a chance to air their feelings. Encourage them to talk openly, to expect emotional ups and downs, and to ask deep questions about the meaning of life and death. If your kids have a friend who’s struggling emotionally or contemplating suicide, teach them how to reach out with compassion. If your child has lost someone she knows to suicide, ask her if she feels somehow responsible for her friend’s death. Does she have any “If only I’d done . . .” thoughts? She may need you to firmly tell her this message: “It’s not your fault. You may be thinking it is, but it’s not your fault.”
Use Appropriate Language
When discussing this issue, stay away from phrases like successful suicide or completed suicide. They tend to create the impression that self-destruction might be a desirable goal or objective. It’s okay to say that someone died by suicide or killed himself. On the whole, it’s best to be candid and forthright. Don’t to try to soften things with simplistic language.
Kids need to understand that saving a friend’s life is more important than keeping secrets. If a suicidal acquaintance isn’t willing to discuss her feelings with a parent or some other trustworthy adult, coach your child to speak with a teacher, pastor, or counselor who’s in a position to intervene.
Personal: When You Think Your Child May Be Considering Suicide
When the threat of suicide hits close to home, it’s important to approach the situation with understanding, sensitivity, and great care. Here’s our recommended plan of action:
Evaluate the Risk
Start by using the S.L.A.P. acrostic to gauge the level of danger. If you see obvious signs of depression, get your child to a doctor for a medical evaluation immediately. Depression and brain/body chemistry are closely related. The goal of the medical evaluation is to get your child stabilized, which is important to do before addressing thoughts of suicide and attempting to treat the psychological aspects of the situation.
Talk About It
Find or create an opportunity to talk with your child about what he’s going through. You can make this easier by inviting him to go for a drive with you, perhaps with pizza or ice cream as the destination. When deep emotions or delicate subjects are at stake, kids are often more comfortable talking to a windshield than engaging you eye-to-eye.
Your tone of voice, your body language, and the level of anxiety you convey will have a very real impact on the discussion. Stay in prayer as the conversation proceeds and ask the Lord to grant you an extra measure of self-control.
Avoid those of the yes-or-no variety. Ask how, what, or why instead. Try to come up with open-ended, nondirective invitations to dialogue. Help your child feel comfortable about sharing his thoughts and impressions by prompting him with unfinished sentences. For example, you could say, “You have deep feelings about this because . . . ” If you get short, noncommunicative answers such as “I don’t know,” ask for details. Say something along these lines: “Tell me more. What’s going well? What isn’t? What does it feel like inside your mind and body right now?” Encourage journaling or play emotional charades as methods of discovering deep-seated emotions.
Don’t allow your teen to downplay or minimize the issue (much as you may want to minimize it). On the other hand, don’t make mountains out of molehills. Remain calm and try to strike the right balance.
Guide and Empower
Don’t be afraid to press the need to seek professional help. Make it clear to your teen that this is an absolute necessity. Tell her that she has no alternative except to get the treatment she needs. At the same time, empower her with appropriate choices. Allow her the option of talking to other adult mentors—a pastor, for instance, or a youth leader, a teacher, coach, grandfather, or neighbor with whom your family has an especially close relationship. Kids often hesitate to share deep feelings with their parents because they have unfinished business with them.
End on a Positive Note
Try to bring your conversation, or series of conversations, to a close by focusing on life rather than death. Ask your child, “Who do you think
Emotional Charades Activity
Emotional charades can be a good gateway into communication with your children. Here’s how to play:
- Write out on index cards all the emotions you can think of (one emotion per card). Sometimes you can print out the faces from an emotion poster or use your “emoji” keyboard for common emotions.
- Someone picks a card and acts out the emotion while the others guess the emotion.
- Once the emotion is guessed, have everyone answer these questions:
- What does that emotion look like on your face?
- What does that emotion feel like in your body? (What does your body feel like when you have that emotion?)
- How do you communicate that emotion with words? (Practice with the person to your right.)
- What do you do to handle that emotion appropriately? (Give tools and tips for dealing with that emotion.)
- When everyone has answered those questions, then the next person draws a card and acts out the next emotion.
God wants you to be? What would it look like for you to live a positive, healthy life? How can you contribute to the well-being of others?” Make these topics the ultimate goal of your discussion.
Remember, suicide isn’t something that comes out of the blue. Many factors can contribute to a person actually deciding to end his life. In our current cultural setting, there’s a very real danger that suicide can become contagious. If a teen hears about a suicide, he may see it as a solution to his own problems—problems such as bullying, trauma, loneliness, rejection by peers, or abuse. Family members, celebrities, friends, or coworkers who attempt suicide can give him the sense that he’s been granted permission to follow their example. That’s why open communication on the subject is essential.
We know this is easier said than done. But the lives of our children are at stake. That’s why we need to open up and start talking about the problem of suicide.
Focus on the Family Broadcast: Finding Hope After My Darkest Day
Speaker Kristen Anderson tells her gripping story of how, as a depressed teenager, she attempted suicide by lying down in front of an oncoming railroad train. She explains how she survived and how her life was transformed when she found hope in Jesus Christ.
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