Why Talking About Suicide Is a Good Thing

Talking about suicide is hard for parents to do, but it’s so important, especially if you’re worried about your child.

For most parents, suicide is a difficult topic to think about, and even harder to talk about. You may wonder how to explain suicide or talk about it openly with your children. And worse — if you see your child struggling, you may even shy away from talking about suicide because you worry you’re introducing the idea to them.

Talking openly with your child may, in fact, be just what they need.

“Suicide is a very touchy subject for parents, and that’s valid. In the past, suicide was a taboo topic for parents. But we know that bringing up the topic of suicide doesn’t plant the idea in someone else’s head. It’s OK to talk about suicide,” says Licensed Professional Counselor Cassandra Phipps, Children’s Initiative Director at Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN).

In her clinical work, Phipps sees parents’ fears and worries expressed in different ways — even when their child is in the emergency department following a suicide attempt. “In some cases, parents downplay or minimize the experience and say their child’s actions were attention-seeking behavior. In other cases, parents see that their child is trying to harm themselves, but they don’t know how to support their child. They feel like they have no control,” says Phipps. “It can be emotionally overwhelming to support a child who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or plans.”

As parents, we have all experienced being a teen, which gives us some insight into the challenges kids are facing. But it’s important to acknowledge that today’s generation of kids is experiencing a new level of trauma, says Phipps.

“They’re coming out of a pandemic and are in a state of vulnerability because young people don’t have the same coping skills as adults. Their brains are still developing, and they are still learning how to cope, analyze and process their experiences and thoughts,” she says. “You may be able to reframe a bad experience into something good, but your child may struggle with being able to make that change. As adults, we are here to model, validate, affirm and have a listening ear.”

What’s helpful … and what’s not

It’s important to pay attention to any change in your child’s typical patterns of behavior, Phipps says. Recent life circumstances or trauma — like a difficult breakup, problems with friends or struggles in school or community — can all be risk factors for suicide. “A suicide attempt or death from suicide in the family is an indicator that a child could be at increased risk,” Phipps says.

If you notice changes in sleep patterns or if your child is eating more or less than usual, withdrawing and not wanting to be social or get out of the house to spend time with friends, or if you are concerned about their substance use, take the time to check in and start a conversation.

Acknowledge what your child is experiencing and show love and affirmation, suggests Phipps. “Tell them you love them and want to help them and that it’s important to you that they stay safe. Ask what you can do. Ask if they have suicidal thoughts or have a plan, and keep the lines of communication open,” she says.

Steer clear of blaming and shaming language, says Phipps. “Don’t minimize their feelings or tell them that it’s their own fault. Avoid communication or language that dismisses the young person’s perspective,” she says. “Sometimes, parents will have a hard time understanding where their child is coming from and think, ‘Here we go again. I don’t have time for this.’”

Support for parents, and a plan

If your child doesn’t want to talk with you, don’t assume they don’t want to talk with anyone. “Teens have so many questions and want the opportunity to process what they are experiencing with a nonjudgmental third party that can hear them and really understand,” Phipps says.

“You might think your child is going through a phase or having an identity crisis and that it will blow over,” says Phipps. “Some things are circumstantial, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if they want to see someone and get help.”

Now is the time to reach out and get help for your child. “Prevention is key. Don’t wait to get help. If you notice warning signs in your child, it’s OK to get services sooner rather than later. You never know how they are internalizing their experiences, and it’s OK to not be OK. Communicate to your child that help is here,” Phipps says.

If your child is in crisis, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Or reach out to DWIHN’s 24-hour Helpline at 800-241-4949. Visit ReachUsDetroit.org, or call or text 313-488-HOPE. Anyone aged 14 and older can text Reach Us Detroit and qualify for up to 12 free counseling sessions, regardless of insurance.

Consider developing a crisis plan. “Be proactive about locking away pills and sharp objects. Kids can be impulsive in their behavior, and removing these items makes it harder for them to act on impulse. Think prevention, prevention, prevention,” Phipps says.

“It can be hard to hear that your child wants to harm themselves or end their life,” says Phipps, so get the help you need, too. Seek out local support groups for parents. Find a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or find a provider through DWIHN at dwihn.org.

Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Learn more at flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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