Last week, the world was rocked by the news of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Here were two seemingly happy, successful people who had it all. But they, for whatever reason, felt that suicide was their only way out. If you’ve struggled with depression and mental illness, then you know that it does not discriminate. And often, even the happiest people have demons that the outside world has no idea about. It’s so incredibly difficult and heartbreaking and hard to understand. However, it’s important to talk to our kids about mental health, depression, and yes, suicide. Especially if your kids are older, in the tween and teen set. But where do we start? And how do frame such a difficult discussion? Here are some tips from mental health experts for talking to kids of all ages about suicide.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not talk about tragedies with their kids until the age of 8.
However, if you are worried your kids will be exposed to something at a younger age, it’s important to address it. For preschool to kinder-aged kids, experts say you should keep it simple.
While we hope to keep our kids shielded from this kind of tragedy for as long as possible, kids hear things. And kids talk about things among themselves. Your child may even have a school friend who lost someone to suicide. So be prepared for the questions, and answer them as simply as possible. Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says, “You could say ‘This person died and it is really sad’, ‘They had a bad disease and it just took over.’ Just exactly like you would talk to your kids if someone had cancer.” Also, keep in mind your own child’s cognitive development, and keep the conversation on their level.
For school-aged kids 7 – 10 years old, be honest but keep your answers short.
You’ll still want to emphasize that the death is sad, and that the person suffered and died from a disease. But kids this age might have more questions, like “How did they die?” or “Can I get that disease?” Let your child lead the conversation, and answer their questions as honestly as you can in a way that they can understand. Try not to overburden them with information they might not want.
When talking to tweens (11-14) about suicide, things need to be more concrete.
In general, you should already be talking to your tweens about mental health, depression, and the signs of suicide. Because, as heartbreaking as it is to imagine, kids this age suffer from anxiety and depression, and yes, kids this age take their own lives. This is a complicated age, with a range of emotions that kids may not understand or be equipped to deal with. Dr. Gilboa suggests starting the conversation off with some questions to find out where your tween is: What have you heard about suicide? What have you heard about this person and how they died? Again, you don’t want to overburden them with information, but by finding out what they’ve heard, you can guide the conversation and correct any misconceptions they might have.
This is also the age where you should be asking your kids if they or anyone they know have talked about or thought about suicide. Make sure they know that you are a safe place for them to discuss their feelings. It’s also very important that your child doesn’t feel judged for their feelings or struggles. You want them to feel comfortable talking to you, and feel supported in their struggles.
For high school kids, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
Experts say that parents should be having the same conversation with their high-schoolers as their tweens, but with one important difference. Don’t ask your older teens “if” they or their friends have discussed or contemplated suicide. Ask them when.
Gilboa says, “We are not going to say ‘if.’ Not ‘What would you do if you were worried about this.’ But, ‘What will you do when you are worried about yourself or your friends?’. It is nearly impossible for a child to get through high school without knowing someone with a mental health condition.” It’s also important to reassure your older teens that mental health conditions are perfectly normal, and that help is available. They might not feel comfortable talking to mom and dad about it anymore, and that’s OK! But make sure they know you are willing and able to connect them with the right resources. You may also want to address your own mental health struggles with your older teens, so they know that it’s an issue that affects everyone. We don’t want them to feel like they’re alone or broken.
Don’t wait to talk to your kids about mental health and suicide. This is one of those areas where “too late” can have dire consequences. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide or needs help, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text TALK to 741741.