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Empowering Parents: How to approach the difficult conversation about suicide









Self Harm

February 27, 2023

Hey parents, we know this is such a scary topic. Maybe the absolute scariest. But, with suicide rates quickly climbing—it’s the second leading cause of death for kids, teens, and young adults, ages 10-24 years— it’s a conversation that needs to happen.

Studies show that most young people who have thought about, attempted, or committed suicide did not reveal their thoughts or behaviors without being asked, and almost all of their parents did not know about their attempts. According to a 2021 CDC report report, 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.

We know that these are hard things to hear, but that’s why we want to provide you with the tools and talking points you need to have those tough conversations before things escalate into a real problem. By opening up this dialogue now, you’ll be laying a critical foundation for connection as they grow up and assuring them that they can always come to you when they are struggling. 

Let’s bust a dangerous myth…

Let’s debunk a damaging myth that’s out there. Talking about suicide with your child does NOT increase their risk of suicide. It actually decreases the risk. Rest assured that you will not be putting the idea in their heads. Sure, it may feel uncomfortable and downright terrifying to talk about, but know that by opening up this conversation could actually save your child’s life. 

How to have a conversation…

Don’t wait for a crisis to occur to have this talk. Chances are that your child will hear about suicide at some point, or maybe they already have, so it’s best that they are given factual information from a trusted, safe adult— you! 

Take some time to review this list and see what communication style works best for you and your family. Remember that you’re not alone in navigating this and other hard things. You can always reach out to the Bend team for support

  • Try side-by-side communication. It can be helpful to bring up difficult things when you can both talk and listen without making direct eye contact. Opportunities like when you are doing chores together, while out for a walk, or sitting side-by-side at the dinner table can take some of the pressure off and allow you both to communicate with more ease. You can dive in by simply asking, “How are you doing?” Follow cues and ask open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “When that happened, how did it make you feel?”

    Modify based on maturity level. Your approach to talking about suicide for children and teens can be quite similar, just adjusting language based on their experiences and maturity level. Use language that will resonate with your child. With younger children, you can discuss how emotions show up as physical symptoms in their bodies, like stomach aches. 
  • Be honest, calm, and direct. You can start by asking if they know what suicide is and listen attentively to their thoughts. You can also use the line, “Hey I read an article about ___.” Or you can say, “I know being a teenager is so hard sometimes. Does it ever get so tough that you think about ending your life?”

    If they don’t know what suicide is, you can use this definition as a starting point — “Suicide is when a person takes their own life or does something to make their body stop working. This can happen when someone feels very sad or upset. It’s normal to feel sad sometimes. People who take their own lives may forget that they can ask for help and that these feelings won’t last forever.”
  • Take them seriously. We can often dismiss our children as being “dramatic,” but remember that emotional outbursts are a form of communication, and it's important to pay attention and hear what is going on from their perspective without trying to fix it.

  • Explain the permanence of death. Suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem. Help your child tap into resilience skills and reassure them that there are ways to get through any difficult emotion or situation. 
  • Look for entry points. Look for opportunities to continue to bring up this topic. Many children say things like, “I just want to die,” when they’re upset. These can be frightening words to hear, but once they’ve calmed down, take this as a green light to open up the conversation and get curious about why they’ve chosen those words. Try not to be dismissive or negative. Simply make space for them to freely express what they’re going through.

    Consider bringing up the topic of someone in the community, a close friend or family member, or someone in the media who has been affected by suicide. Make space for their questions and listen closely to their concerns and remember that children are better equipped to cope when they have honest, direct information. 
  • Leave the door open. It’s not always the right time to talk, so if your child isn’t feeling it, let them know that they can always come to you at another time. Try saying something like, “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here to listen and support you.” 

Discuss big feelings…

Talk with your child about the importance of coping with sadness or other difficult feelings that will inevitably come up. Ask what they turn to when they feel sad and provide some examples of coping techniques that you have. 

Take some time to make a list of uplifting activities that you can both turn to when things get hard, like talking with someone, creating art, listening to music, or taking a walk. Above all else, let them know that they can always come to you or a trusted adult with anything that is weighing on them. 

You can encourage your child or teen to use the acronym S.U.R.F. to get through any difficult thoughts that they may be having at the moment. 

  • Sense the moment. Take note of any sensations that you are experiencing as this thought surfaces. This is your body sending you signals. How are you feeling? What's happening in your body?
  • Understand the thought will pass. Remember that thoughts are not facts. Thoughts come and go, and the best way to get rid of a thought is to think of a new one. What thoughts are you experiencing?
  • Reclaim thoughts with mindfulness. Try deep breathing and focusing on something that makes you feel confident that you will move through this moment successfully.
  • Free your mind of the thought. Find a healthy distraction for yourself. Go for a walk, get some air, or play your favorite game. Celebrate your hard work in moving through this tough moment.

Possible red flags...

Every kid and teen is wonderfully unique, so it makes sense that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all list of warning signs. That being said, you know your child, and if you feel like they are struggling, consider reaching out to a professional for support. 

Look for changes in mood or behavior. If your child has withdrawn from the people or activities they used to enjoy, or if you notice changes in eating or sleeping habits, check in with them and ask directly about suicidal thoughts. Even if they have never contemplated suicide, they’ll know that this topic isn’t off-limits and that they can turn to you in the future. 

Additional signs of depression can include:

  • Feeling less energetic
  • Moving or speaking slowly
  • Prolonged anger or frustration 
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • A change in academic performance
  • Increased references to death or self-harm behaviors 

By opening up about this uncomfortable topic within your home, you’re taking a huge step in protecting your child. Honest dialogue with your child will promote awareness, reduce stigma, and provide them with the support and resources they may need. Remember that the Bend team is always here if you need us along the way. 

If you, your kid or teen, or someone you know is in crisis, call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, or reach out to the following national resources. You are never alone. Dial 9-8-8 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Text 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

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