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Like sex, drugs, bullying or any other taboo topic facing teens, suicide is a subject fraught with discomfort and stigma. Misinformation abounds — which makes it that much more crucial to discuss.
A healthy conversation can help correct misconceptions, say Children’s Hospital Colorado psychologists Emily Laux, PsyD, and Justin Michener, PhD. Talking can also help teens emotionally prepare for when they’ll inevitably have to confront tough subjects on their own. Need some help? Doctors Michener and Laux offer these tips:
One of the hardest parts of the conversation can be finding a way in. “Parents can’t really just say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about killing yourself?’” notes Dr. Laux.
Too much directness may come off as confrontational, which can sour a discussion before it even begins. Dr. Laux recommends an indirect approach: “Something like, ‘Hey, I read an article about this. What do you think?’”
It also helps to talk while doing something else, like driving or shopping, which can make a conversation seem more, well, conversational. Keeping it casual will make it a little more comfortable.
While there is such a thing as “suicide contagion,” a phenomenon in which one suicide in a community can sometimes lead to a spike in others, there’s nothing contagious about talking about it.
“A conversation is not going to make a kid depressed or suicidal,” says Dr. Michener. In fact, openly discussing suicide with teens can mitigate the effects of a suicide in a community, since “copycat” suicides are often fueled by glamorization and misconception.
Perhaps the most dangerous misconception about suicide is that kids who express suicidal thoughts are doing it for attention. For most kids who contemplate suicide, it’s a last resort. They’re in pain, usually struggling with mental illness, and suicide seems like the only way to end the pain.
“Most kids don’t want to go through with it,” says Dr. Michener, “and they’re trying to give people the opportunity to help.”
Talking to kids about it gives them that opportunity. Make sure they know the right thing to do if a friend expresses thoughts of suicide: go to a trusted adult right away, no matter what that friend says. “Saving that kid’s life is the most important thing,” says Dr. Laux.
Most kids are not actively considering suicide, but parents broaching the subject should be emotionally prepared for whatever comes up.
“If a kid does express those thoughts, stay calm,” says Dr. Laux. “Take it seriously and listen, but as much as possible, contain your own emotional reaction. Kids are going to be hypersensitive to your perception of it, and a lot of kids will perceive a parent’s fearful reaction as anger — which enhances the secrecy around it.”
Don’t try to fix it. Instead, hear teens out, be supportive and seek professional help. Call the suicide prevention hotline, a pediatrician or Children’s Colorado; professionals can direct you to the appropriate help. If you think there’s an imminent danger, emergency departments can provide emergency psychiatric services.
Kids consider suicide when they feel overwhelmed with painful emotions and don’t know how to cope. Some kids are too young to understand the concept of suicide, of course, but it’s never too early to talk about dealing with distress. For younger kids, Dr. Laux recommends a Dr. Seuss book called My Many Colored Days, which helps kids understand and label their feelings.
“Just like the birds and the bees or a conversation about drugs, you wouldn’t start out super detailed,” she says. “It’s really about, how do you handle difficult feelings? If kids are in the habit of using healthy coping strategies, they’re more likely to use them as they get older.”