According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 15-24. it the fourth leading cause for Americans adults aged 18-65. Given these alarming statistics, the likelihood of you or a family member being affected by suicide is high. It is crucial for parents to be armed with knowledge of how to talk to their teens when and if this happens in their community. If your teen loses a friend to death by suicide, here are the ways you can help.
- Put on your oxygen mask first. Be sure to take time to process how you are feeling. It is completely normal to feel saddened, overwhelmed, scared, and/or angry. It is important to do this so that when you go to talk to your teen, you don’t have any surprise feelings come up that are overwhelming for you. (Also, continue to check in with other parents who are familiar with the deceased so you can process the event together as you move through the grieving process.)
- Once you’ve taken the time to process, go talk to your teen. Parents are often not sure how to begin the conversation and worry that talking about suicide may encourage their own teen to think about suicide. This has happened to their friend, they are thinking about it whether you speak to them or not. That doesn’t mean they will think about doing it themselves. This is an opportunity for you to guide them through a difficult time. If you are unsure about this, a good way to begin is to talk a little about how you felt when you heard the news and then ask them to share how they are feeling.
- Validate their feelings. It is normal for them to feel shock, anger, confusion, guilt and despair. Be sure they know they are not responsible for what happened. If the anger turns into blaming, this is not productive or healthy for them, just reassure them it’s ok to feel angry. If they stop talking, don’t necessarily leave them. Be with them through the silence too. Hold their hand, give them a hug, or be ready with the tissue. Sometimes your presence is all they need for comfort and reassurance.
- Avoid gossip about causes and address rumors. What is your teen hearing about the cause or the event? If you are hearing rumors or stories about the causes, it is likely your teen is hearing them too. Address them but don’t give them life in your home. It does not help your teen to speculate about what happened.
- Remain non-judgemental about the deceased. If drugs or alcohol were involved, it’s ok to use this as a teachable moment to talk about any dangerous behaviors but in a way will teach to seek help when needed. If substance abuse wasn’t involved, please remember suicide happens when a person is overwhelmed by the emotions or the pain they are feeling and it exceeds the resources they have for coping with the pain. They are not thinking clearly, it is a mental health issue. Again, the teachable moment here is about seeking help when one is feeling overwhelmed. Teaching our teens to reach out to counselors or trusted adults when life feels painful and overwhelming is part of suicide prevention.
- Honor memories of the deceased. Encourage your teen to honor their friend’s life with something that is meaningful to them. Is there a cause they would like to contribute to, or an event they would like to plan? When we feel helpless, doing something good is helpful and gives us healthy coping mechanisms.
- If your teen had a personal relationship with the deceased, their grief should be your first priority. Check in with your teen periodically and ask how they are feeling about the death. Grief in your teen will be different than it is for you, so look for any signs of depression. How will you know if your teen needs professional help? If your teen appears withdrawn, is angry often, begins talking about death a lot, stops spending time with friends, and/or has appetite changes these are indicators you should contact a professional for counseling.
These tips will allow you to have a very important conversation with your teen during an extremely challenging time. For more helpful information on Suicide, go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.