How to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide

A plan for discussing the third leading cause of adolescent death
How to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide

Our daughter’s friend (I’ll call her Kari) came to our home on a chilly April afternoon after an altercation with her parents that ended at a police station. She had spent the last year sleeping in a dumpster behind a pizza chain, in a group home, at friends’ houses, and at a psychiatric inpatient center. Our daughter’s bedroom was not the first strange place she had crashed, though it might have been the quietest.

She came with a bag of prescription medication and crisscross-scarred arms. With little explanation from her mom, I spent half an hour deciphering the pill bottles and splitting them for her evening dosage. Before her arrival, we’d received more instructions about what to hide than what to provide: Every knife in our home, all scissors, and all medications needed to be locked up. She was a cutter. She’d already attempted suicide twice. She was 13.

Close to Home

While Kari stayed with us, our inquisitive children watched our every move. At ages 8, 11, and 14, they are already more seasoned than your average suburban kid. They hear about pain and suffering from their therapist dad, and I’ve had to explain more than I’d like about my work in anti-human trafficking.

As believers, we feel called to care for the least of these, the disenfranchised of society. Our family had already hosted an older boy for a few months, who shared his tumultuous childhood in bits and pieces over ice cream and slow dinners. But when my 11-year-old saw me bring the knives in a big bundle to my bedroom, her large doe eyes registered utter confusion. Kari’s threat of self-harm was a brutal introduction to teen suicide.

Months later, we prepared for a new school year of major crossroads: high school, middle school, and third grade. We’d just gotten home from buying binders and pencils. When we turned on the television, video clips from Mork & Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Dead Poets Society flooded the screen. The beloved Robin Williams had taken his life. I wept. And again, I was watched and grilled by my children. “What does that mean, ‘ended his life’? Mom, what’s wrong? Why did he do that?”

That Sunday, our pastor begrudgingly shared news of a copycat suicide. A family friend was found at his computer with a newspaper clipping of Robin Williams nearby. We were shoulder-to-shoulder, older kids wedged between us, hearing every word. This time they learned the word for it. It was no longer just Mom trying to explain the concept of sadness and hurting oneself. Now they know: This hideous phenomenon that intimately entered our home last April is called suicide.

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Adolescence; Challenges; Death; Parenting; Teenagers
Today's Christian Woman, January 20, 2016
Posted January 20, 2016

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