There are many conversations that parents are uncomfortable having with their kids, but talking about suicide is particularly challenging. The topic is an important one, though, given that suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 15-24, and the third leading cause of death among children ages 10-14 year old, according to Centers for Disease Control. It is also often preventable.
We asked experts for their answers to some common questions parents have about whether to even broach the subject and, if they do decide to, what is the best way to do so.
When parents should start talking with children about suicide
“It shouldn’t be too young. If kids are under 10 years old, you don’t really need to talk to kids about it unless there’s a specific reason, be it them raising the issue or exhibiting symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Dan Reidenberg, Psy.D, Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and Managing Director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. “After age 10, parents should start a conversation and continue it. Have an open dialogue throughout the adolescent years.”
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, MD, a family physician and parenting expert at Ask Doctor G, agrees and notes that if there is a family history of suicide, parents should discuss the topic with their kids at an even earlier age given that some of the factors that predispose one to suicide can be genetic.
“It’s wrong for parents to not discuss their medical family history with their kids, whatever it is. You would talk about diabetes, and you should talk about suicide,” advises Gilboa. “The more you discuss this at younger age range, the more you take the stigma away and give your kid a shot at talking about it comfortably.”
Research shows that talking about suicide is not dangerous
Reidenberg says that most parents have the fear that by discussing suicide, they could be putting a thought in someone’s head, but that is not the case. “Research shows that doesn’t happen, and talking about suicide is not going to lead someone down that path or make them want to commit suicide,” he says.
However, Dr. Christine Moutier, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, cautions that if a child is already at risk, the messaging kids receive about suicide can be harmful or helpful.
“As an organization, we created a program that educates teens on depression, and intentionally made it focused on treatable but leading cause of suicide rather than focusing on suicide itself,” she says, noting that the broader focus of the program, which includes thoughtful interaction by the facilitators with the teens, mitigates the risk of mishandling the sensitive topic.
Even if a parent is absolutely sure that suicide will never be an issue with their child, parents still need to raise the topic
“Even if our kids never face this demon, the odds are high that someone they know will,” says Gilboa. “Kids cannot take responsibility for it or think they can handle it with their friend on their own. If a friend commits suicide, they may never get past the guilt. A young life may be lost that we could help our child save if we’d been willing to talk about it.”
Gilboa recommends talking to kids about a friend who asks them to promise not to say anything, and says they should ask kids, “Would you rather have a live friend to apologize to or a dead friend and you kept your promise?”
Discerning the difference between normal teenage behavior and mental health conditions
“As a parent, you know your kids,” says Moutier. She urges parents to trust themselves, confident that parental instincts will indicate when it’s time to seek help.
She cautions that parents also tend to ignore their gut feelings and write things off, like a child who is acting funny or doesn’t seem like their normal self. “We find a way to rationalize it,” she says. “Instead, we should have that conversation, express caring, ask open-ended questions, offer to lead them to help.”
“We can’t just expect that things are going to go away and get better on their own,” says Reidenberg, who also urges parental action. He advises parents to be open to conversation and to monitor their children’s mental health on a regular basis and more frequently during times of increased stress or pressure, such as holidays, finals, graduation, and stressful family situations, so they can recognize warning signs. “It’s also really important to develop relationships with their kids’ peers,” he adds. “It not only helps parents know if something is going on with their kid, it allows parents to help other parents and spot something going on with other kids.”
How do I even approach the topic of suicide with my child?
Talking about suicide in the broader context of mental health is important, and makes the topic more approachable for both kids and parents.
“We should teach kids about mental health as part of wellness. Mental health and emotional health are just as important as any other health care,” says Reidenberg. “We need to be able to have a conversation and kids need to be able to tell parents that they aren’t doing well so that their parents can help them.” He explains that parents should be attentive to a kid who may have a mental health issue, just as they are to a kid who has a stomachache.
Moutier notes that talking with kids about mental health is important and extends far beyond suicide. “One in four Americans have mental health conditions, and the conditions are prevalent throughout every sector of society.”
“Don’t be afraid of the topic,” says Moutier. “Just because you’re not a mental health expert doesn’t mean that you should be scared. Take 10 minutes to read up on it.”