On Your Mind: How to talk to your kids about suicide

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Guest post by Dr. Erica Boughfman, Ozark Guidance

The death of Robin Williams this week has brought the subject of suicide to the forefront of discussions.

Many of your children will hear about the news either by seeing something themselves or having a friend mention it. As a parent, it can be difficult in situations like this to know what the right thing to say is or how to best respond to our children when they begin to ask questions.

Suicide is prevalent and will eventually be a conversation you have with them whether the prompt is Mr. Williams’s death or that of a family member, close friend, or peer at school.

Here a few tips on talking with your child about suicide:

stop sign in stormIn deciding how to talk with your child about suicide, it is important to consider how you would talk with your child about death in general. What have you already shared with your child about death? What facts about the death of someone would you share with your child given his or her age and developmental level? The answers to those questions will help guide what and how much you feel comfortable sharing with you child.

A conversation about suicide is a conversation about mental illness. Death can be challenging to explain to a child and that becomes more complicated when the cause of death is suicide. If someone died of another disease, you would likely name that disease and talk about it with your child. The same should be true in talking about mental illness and suicide.

There remains a stigma about mental illness, but talking openly about it with your children helps to minimize that stigma. Many people have a mental illness and yes, unfortunately, that can lead to a person’s death.  It is also important to share with your children that mental illness can be treated and remind them to always come talk with you if they have any struggles or concerns.

Avoid using the terminology that someone “committed suicide”. When talking with your children about suicide it is important to say that the person died from suicide and not that the person committed suicide. This helps to emphasize to your child that it is the illness that led to the person’s death, not that person’s actions.

Allow your child to guide the conversation. As a parent of two young children (2 and 5), I learned quickly that my kids will ask the questions they have and will process the answers as they are capable at that time. As long as you are providing that safe space for them to ask those questions, they can guide that conversation for you. It is good to first initiate the conversation with your children so that they know it is ok for them to share and ask questions.

Answer questions openly and honestly, while taking into consideration your child’s age and developmental level. I have worked with many adolescent clients over the years whose parents did not tell them the truth about different situations when they were younger in order to “protect” them (suicide is one example of when a parent may alter the truth).

In each situation, no matter the initial incident, the client ended up experiencing that loss again, now with all the information, and also experienced the pain of being “lied to” by someone he or she trusted.

This is not to say that a parent always has to disclose specific details that might not be appropriate to share with a child. Often with young children, very short and to the point answers is what they seek.

Saying something as simple as, “the person was very sad and had depression and it caused him to die” may be all that needs to be shared. Then refer to the suggestion above, let your child guide the conversations with the questions he or she has, but remember to answer those questions honestly.

Talking with your children about suicide can certainly be challenging. However, the more we talk about suicide and mental illness with our children, our friends, and each other, the more we help to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

And if your child were then to ever experience the darkness of depression, he or she would know that you are there, ready to listen and to assist them in getting professional help.

Dr. BoughfmanErica Boughfman, PhD., LPC, is program director of Ozark Guidance’s School-Based Services of Washington County. You can reach Ozark Guidance at 479-750-2020 or 800-234-7052. The mental health crisis phones are answered 24/7. Disclaimer: This response does not provide medical advice and is intended for informational purposes only.

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