Don’t be Afraid to Say The ‘S’ Word-Talking to Kids About Suicide

By Phyllis Alongi, MS, NCC, LPC, ACS

Talking to Kids About Suicide

Through my work as Clinical Director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, I frequently get asked by parents,” How do I talk to my child about suicide? What is the appropriate age to talk about it? What tools do I need? If I talk to my child about suicide, am I planting the idea in his or her head? Do I just come right out and ask?”

The answer I provide -arm yourself with knowledge and get the facts. The latest statistics issued from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate suicide is the second leading cause of death ages 10-24 in the United States. We know early suicide prevention education, known as upstream prevention, is necessary, as well as the need to practice self-awareness. What are your attitudes and feelings toward suicide? Then, check those attitudes at the door. Before you speak to your child about suicide, know the warning signs, risk factors, protective factors and the appropriate resources.

Choose a good time to talk, be conversational, be honest. Speak to your child the way you normally would. Keep good eye contact. Be direct, don’t be afraid to say the “S” word-ask directly about suicide. Talking about suicide doesn’t put the idea in someone’s head. Listen to your child and really hear what he or she is saying. Don’t judge. Don’t minimize your child’s responses. If you’re worried, ask more questions; say three very important words, “Tell me more.” Having those “difficult” conversations with your child can be uncomfortable, almost daunting at times, but we need to have those sensitive discussions despite our feelings. First, practice self-evaluation. What are your feelings or attitudes regarding suicide?

Any ideas or judgements you may have regarding suicide will filter through when discussing the topic with your child and alter the way you speak about it, possibly preventing a frank discussion. As parents, your role in suicide prevention is crucial. You know your child’s moods and behaviors better than anyone else. If you see behavior that concerns you, ask your child about it, be sure your child knows that he or she can feel comfortable about coming to you for help. Reiterate that you are there to listen and not to judge, and that you are there for your child, no matter what he or she has to say.

Be willing to seek professional help. If your child is struggling, he or she will need to be evaluated by a trained, mental health professional, who is knowledgeable in suicidal ideation and will make appropriate referrals for level of care and ongoing treatment. Remember, you are not a mental health professional or a crisis response worker. If you know a loved one is in immediate dangercall 911 right away!

Know the risk factors
There are a number of reasons why someone would consider completing suicide. We need to look at the risk factors involved and keep in mind that every case of suicide is unique. Risk factors may include existing mental health issues, such as depression; personality traits such as aggression or impulsivity; previous attempts; family history of suicide; exposure to suicide; access to means; stressful environmental factors such as loss or trauma; any serious chronic pain issue; and substance abuse. Many times, there are multiple reasons, coming together like “a perfect storm.”

It is difficult for anyone in crisis to make healthy decisions, particularly when experiencing intense emotional pain. The adolescent brain is not fully developed, therefore, problem-solving skills are lessened. Adolescents do not possess the same finetuned reasoning skills as adults.

Know the warning signs. The following signs may mean that a youth is at risk for suicide, especially if that person attempted suicide in the past. The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide utilizes the acronym FACTS (Feelings, Actions, Changes, Threats and Situations) as a way to easily remember the warning signs.

• Feelings-Expressing hopelessness about the future
• Actions-Displaying severe and overwhelming pain or distress
• Changes-Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, including: withdrawal from friends or changes in social activity; anger and hostility; or changes in sleep
• Threats-Talking about, writing about, or making plans for suicide
• Situations-Experiencing stressful situations including those that involve loss, change, create personal humiliation, or involve getting into trouble at home, in school or with the law

These kinds of situations can serve as triggers for suicide. If you notice any of these warning signs, talk to your child, express concern about what you are observing in their behavior.

What you can do to foster protective factors in your child? Encourage your child to participate in school, community and/or athletic activities. A sense of connectedness and belonging is a strong protective factor. Ensure your child’s physical, emotional and mental health needs are met. Accentuate the positive; self-esteem building is crucial to social and coping skills. Model fine-tuned problem solving skills, anger management and emotion regulation.

Know your resources!
There are numerous, quality resources available. Get familiar with the local mental health agencies and private practitioners in your area. We encourage everyone to utilize the SPTS website www. Teen suicide prevention is conversation adults must be comfortable with and are having with their teens. Prevention works. The video “Not My Kid: What Every Parent Should Know” available on our website, is a 17-minute video recognized as Best Practice and includes the most frequently asked questions parents have about teen suicide. Additional resources that are helpful for parents are;
If you or anyone you know is struggling, encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
If you have an IMMEDIATE concern about someone’s safety, call 911 IMMEDIATELY!
Suicide is a preventable problem! Get the FACTS, gain confidence and have that conversation.

About the organization
The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS) was founded in 2005 by two New Jersey fathers, who each experienced the devastating loss of a teenage child by suicide. SPTS firmly believes that accessible, quality education and public awareness about teen suicide can save young lives. The core values that define SPTS and its founding board have a passionate commitment to the value of life, belief in the effectiveness of evidence based suicide prevention strategies, dedication to removing public stigma about suicide and conviction that accurate information and education about suicide can save lives. The mission of SPTS is to reduce the number of youth suicides and attempted suicides by encouraging public awareness through the development and promotion of educational training programs. SPTS offers a variety of resources on its website that can be downloaded and duplicated at no cost.