“How do I talk to my child about suicide?” has been the most frequent question parents have asked me following the release of the hit TV show 13 Reasons Why. I’m so thankful parents are asking this question, instead of trying to figure out how to push this heartbreaking topic under the rug. Teenagers want to know what they are supposed to think about suicide; and, luckily, many children and teenagers are looking to their parents for answers.
The majority of parents I have worked with after a child’s suicide have said they never saw any warning signs. This absolutely breaks my heart and is the major reason I dedicate so much time speaking to students, teachers, and parents about the tragedy of suicide. While it is often true that parents don’t see the signs of suicide in their children, statistics tell us that four out of five teenagers who attempted suicide gave clear warning signs they were planning to do so. What does this mean for parents?
As the primary influencers in your child’s life, here are the top 5 things to remember when addressing the issue of suicide.
1. Keep communication open, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Do not just take children at their word that they are okay. They often don’t know if they are okay. They may be hurting, confused, and needing a safe place to process their grief and feelings. In relation to 13 Reasons Why, instead of being angry or punishing your children for watching the show, ask what parts of the show connected with them. Very few parents are aware if their child has been bullied or sexually assaulted. You can make 13 Reasons Why work for you. If you have a child opening up to you about this show, about a friend’s suicide, or about the topic of suicide, resist the urge to correct or condemn. Let your child talk for as long as they will; and use non-judgmental, open-ended phrases and questions, such as “What was that like?” “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you think about this?”
1. Watch for signs of depression and suicidal ideation.
People who are already struggling with depression and suicidal ideation can have an especially difficult time after someone commits suicide. Even if you do not think your child struggles with these issues, a recent suicide is upsetting for anyone. People in a location with a recent suicide become especially vulnerable because, in some way, suicide becomes a viable option.
Signs of depression: change in sleep pattern, sadness, anger, change in appetite, apathy, loss in interests, withdrawal, anxiety, self-harm, excessive crying, trouble concentrating, substance abuse.
Signs of suicidal ideation: irritability, depression, hopelessness, giving possessions away, apathy, withdrawal, losing interests, joking about death and suicide, saying things like “I’m a burden” or “If only I weren’t here anymore” or “I just want everything to be over,” getting in fights, sudden happiness (as a result of resolving to end their lives), saying goodbye, recent trauma, bullying, eating disorders, etc.
3. Get professional help.
This cannot be stressed enough. Getting professional help for your child does not mean something is wrong with your child. Getting professional help is a way for your child to gain skills to help them process the trauma they have been exposed to through another’s suicide. Very few people actually like seeing a therapist, so do not take it as a bad sign if your child is not enthusiastic about going. Encourage your child to go to a therapist at least a few times to help them bond with the therapist, even if your child claims they aren’t learning anything.
4. Try not to answer the “Did they go to Heaven or hell?” question.
This suggestion goes counter to my Southern Baptist, evangelical upbringing. However, I have worked with many, many teenagers and young adults who refrained from committing suicide because of their belief it would send them to Hell. The Bible teaches we are “Saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God.” Eph. 2:8-10 The Bible teaches the way we go to Heaven is through a relationship with Jesus Christ and that the reason people go to Hell is because they have not trusted in Christ as their Savior.
While we don’t want to lie or to teach wrong theology to anyone, it’s pretty tempting for a Christian who is suicidal to hear that if they commit suicide, they will definitely go to Heaven. Therefore, the best option is redirecting your questioning child to two concepts: 1. What the Bible says about life (Jeremiah 29:11). 2. The truth that nothing they have done and nothing that has been done to them can separate them from the love and the plan of God (Romans 8). I also use John 10:10 with students and adults, so they remember who is ultimately responsible for suicidal thoughts. “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you may have life and have it to the fullest.” Suicide is used by Satan to kill people. Suicide steals a Christian’s life, shortens their ministry, and hurts their witness. Suicide causes non-Christians to die without a relationship with Jesus Christ. Suicide is not God’s desire for anyone.
5. Let them know that nothing they can ever do is ever so bad that the only answer is suicide.
If you counsel and discipline your child as if what they have done is the worst thing they could possibly do and as if there is no room for grace or redemption, you have set your child up for failure. If you act as if their problem, screw-up, sin, or mistake is the worst thing possible, they are likely to believe you. While discipline is necessary for children, it must be coupled with the truth that God has a plan for us, even when we mess up. Colossians 3:21 states, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” You hold more power than you know as parents. Even when their headphones are in, even when their eyes are glued to their phones, and even when they constantly roll their eyes; they are listening. Children need to hear they are unconditionally loved and accepted by their parents and by God. They need to hear that there is always hope, always forgiveness, always redemption, and always grace.
God recently had my paths cross with a young woman contemplating suicide. She had experienced incredible hurt and trauma that had contributed to her depression and despair. On the very night she had decided to die, God moved heaven and earth to have five complete strangers interrupt her plan and to tell her of God's purpose for her life. On the night she had decided to end her life, she instead chose to give her life to Jesus Christ. In an instant she went from being completely hopeless to completely hopeful. If this is the impact five people can have on a stranger, imagine the incredible opportunity you have as parents to encourage and speak life to your child. The child-parent relationship has been proven time and again to be forever the most influential human relationship. While it's painful to admit when your child is struggling, you're the best chance they have to choose God's plan of hope and redemption. What an incredible responsibility. What an incredible privilege.