It is extremely likely that your adolescent knows someone who has thought about suicide. Why aren’t we talking to our kids about the 2nd leading cause of death for America’s youth?
What parent wants to talk about suicide with their child? Parents report a number of reasons to avoid discussing it with their kids. It will never affect my kid and if we talk about suicide, it will become something that they consider or I have no idea what to say. The highest increase? Ten to thirteen year old preteens, who have experienced an increase of approximately 300% over the last decade.
While parents spend countless hours talking and teaching their kids about the importance of driving safety, drug abuse, sexual health and school, suicide continues to be one of the most predominant causes of death. Let’s look at some of the reasons that parents avoid talking about suicide and the wisdom behind having a discussion.
It will never affect my kid: We know that approximately 1 in 5 adolescents consider suicide in the United States and about 1 in 11 will actually make an attempt. While 80% of adolescents may not consider suicide, they will more than likely know someone who is thinking about taking their own life or has actually attempted suicide. The most common and lethal method of attempt and completion? Firearms. Approximately half of all suicide attempts are completed by firearm and, wherever your beliefs lie around access to guns, the prevalence of intentional deaths by firearm outnumber all other methods combined.
If we talk about suicide, it will become something my child will consider: We know that this statement is untrue for suicide and have oodles of evidence through other adolescent behaviors. If we didn’t talk about drug use, would our kids never think about trying substances? If we avoided having ‘the talk’ about sex, would our kids avoid sexual activity? Of course not. Why are the implications of discussing suicide different?
I have no idea what to say: There are few conversations that elicit worry like talking about suicide with the person you care about more than anything in the world. However, it is not necessary to bring all of the gravity, anxiety and apprehension to the convo. The conversation can start around current events, a school discussion, something that you read in the paper or this article. What are your child’s thoughts? Have they ever thought about suicide? Have they worried about a friend? What would they do if someone approached them about hurting themselves? And then listen…..and listen some more. There is nothing wrong with owning your own curiosity, concern and/or discomfort around the conversation. Most importantly, the purpose is to start a dialogue that can be continued and to build a bridge for future discussion. Few things can shut down a conversation like anger or emotional volatility (“I can’t believe you didn’t talk to anyone when your friend said they were hurting. How could you keep that to yourself!). Your discomfort as a parent is likely 10 times less than your adolescent’s. Identify a strategy they can your child feel comfortable talking with you around any concerns around their own emotional or physical wellness as well as their friend’s.
Is my teen’s behavior ‘regular ‘old teen behavior’ or is it abnormal and in need of help: Drawing a line in the sand between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ when it comes to preteens and adolescents can be very difficult. Teens that engage in risk taking behaviors, don’t have many friends, have less predictable moods and experiment with drugs and sexual behavior can all fall within the ‘normal’ range of adolescents. At the same time, we can imagine that any of those behaviors being indicators of problematic behavior. Trust your instincts and if something feels ‘off’, seek help. Involve your child’s pediatrician or guidance counselor to get outside guidance and perspectives. As difficult as it may be, try to avoid worrying alone. While teens may find some discomfort concerning a talk around suicide with their parents, the alternative of not having a person to talk to can be far more destructive.
We do know there are risk factors in self-injury and suicide and the prevalence of those risk factors continues to increase. Loneliness can have one of the largest impacts on emotional and mental health, as well as physical wellbeing. Reported loneliness among teens continues to skyrocket and research has shown that loneliness can have as much of a physical impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In studies evaluating factors that impact successful suicides, loneliness and unrelenting anxiety are two of the quietest factors that can lead to the deadliest outcomes. When it comes to teens, loneliness can look very different between kids and can take the form of isolation, being bullied, not feeling connected at school or with friends and growing apart from their adolescent ‘jobs’ as students, family and community members. The Center for Disease Control has comprised a list of the most prominent factors in suicide attempts and completions that can help those seeking to understand more about risk and resiliency with respect to self-injury.
The take home message? Talk, listen, validate and then listen some more. Learn about how your child thinks about suicide. Ask how they would help a friend who is struggling. Talk to friends and avoid the fear and stigma in asking for help. Your ability to tolerate a discussion around suicide can save the life of a suffering child, adolescent or young adult.