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What should you say to a suicidal child?


August 10, 2018

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If your child came to you and said they were thinking of taking their own life, what would you do? What would you say?

It’s a situation no parent wants to even imagine, and unfortunately most parents whose children self-harm don’t even get the chance to say anything before the unthinkable happens.

So, when leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a series of videos on suicide earlier this summer (see them at suicide.lds.org), I immediately thought about my children and what I can do as a mother to help protect them.

I love that in the first video, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says, "There's an old sectarian notion that suicide is a sin and that someone who commits suicide is banished to hell forever. That is totally false. I believe the vast majority of cases will find that these individuals have lived heroic lives and that that suicide will not be a defining characteristic of their eternities."

The trouble is, we often let mental health and self-harm be this kind of “defining characteristic” here in this life. We label. We shame. We sweep issues under the rug because we don’t want to admit there’s a problem with our friend, our spouse or even our children.

For so long and for so many people, suicide has been talked about as a shameful, selfish act. I believe the stigma surrounding self-harm has long prevented people who need help from getting it and people who need to talk from speaking up.

I’ve written before about how shame has no place in parenting, and the same principle holds true when talking to our children about suicide. We need to be honest and open with our children about mental health and approach depression and self-harm not as a dirty secret, but as an illness that needs to be treated. The more we bring it out into the light, the less our children have to suffer silently, afraid that they are broken or flawed or somehow less.

So what does it mean when Elder Renlund says to “reach out with love and understanding” to the many people around us who may be suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts?

For me as a mother, it means first getting informed. Know how to talk to your youth about suicide. Don’t sidestep the issue because you’re scared to broach a touchy topic. Arm yourself with information and get in there.

A great place to start is with the warning signs of suicide, which the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline lists on its website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A few of the top red flags include:

• Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun

• Talking about feeling hopeless or trapped.

• Talking about being a burden to others.

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

• Behaving recklessly.

• Sleeping too little or too much.

If you recognize these signs in your child, the next step is figuring out how to talk to them. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests six ways to begin this conversation (see afsp.org):

1. Talk to them in private.

2. Listen to their story.

3. Tell them you care about them.

4. Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.

5. Encourage them to seek treatment or contact a doctor.

6. Avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems or giving advice.

That last one on the list is the one most parents, including me, are going to have trouble with. It’s so easy to try to minimize or brush away a problem like this, hoping it will miraculously go away on its own or that our child wouldn’t really do that.

It’s also way too easy to try to fix the problem by giving parental advice. Usually, you can’t fix this. Why? Because your child isn’t broken — he just needs help. All you can do is love them, talk to them and get them the help they need.

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