Parent’s Guide: What to do When Your Child’s Friend Dies by Suicide
Most parents try to avoid having their kids deal with difficult adult issues whenever possible. However, there are times in life where parents are forced to discuss tough topics with their kids. There are few topics less disturbing and heart wrenching than having your child’s friend die by suicide. If your child has lost a friend to suicide, here are some things you should know.
Will discussing suicide give my child ideas?
In the wake of a friend’s suicide, some parents are scared to even approach the topic with their child, believing that drawing attention to suicide might plant ideas in their child’s head. While there has been research suggesting that exposure to a friend’s suicide may increase a child’s risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors, parents who openly discuss suicide actually help their child work through the grieving process, giving them a healthy outlet to express emotions rather than turning to self-harm.
Does my child even want to talk to me?
The controversial show, 13 Reasons Why, depicted many loving parents being kept in the dark by their kids to what they were truly experiencing in the wake of their classmate’s suicide. Despite many children and teens’ reluctance to open up to their parents, it’s important for parents to show their love and support after tragedies occur. Even if your child seems disinterested in speaking with you, your honest communication about what happened will reduce their need to “fill in the blanks” of the story with their imagination, causing increased anxiety.
So how can a parent best support their child if they were exposed to suicide?
1. Put self-care first
Just like in those airplane safety videos, when the oxygen masks drop, you need to put yours on before you start helping others. The death of a child by suicide is shocking, confusing, and traumatizing, and you need to address your own emotions before trying to help your child. It’s normal in such a circumstance for you to feel terrified at the thought of losing your own child. Give yourself some time to process what’s happened – expect that you may feel a mix of emotions including fear, sadness, confusion, and helplessness. Identify your feelings so that you can talk openly with your child about how this tragedy has impacted you.
2. Model healthy expression
Many parents feel like they don’t know where to begin in talking to their child about suicide. Start by telling them how you feel about their friend’s death. This will model to them how to talk about their feelings honestly and without judgment. Then ask them to share how they feel. Repeat what you’ve heard them say, expressing validation and understanding of their emotions. Even if all they say is, “I don’t know,” validate that it can be hard to put words to how tragedies make us feel.
3. Explore how your child grieves
Knowing that a peer died by suicide is an overwhelming concept to bear. Pay attention to how your child grieves. Your child may experience some regressive behaviors such as wanting to sleep in your bed for a while. They may have decreased interests in some of their favorite hobbies or have trouble eating or sleeping. Many times children express grief in short outbursts between periods of acting completely fine; these moments are the perfect time to talk with them, when they are most open to discussing emotions.
If you are concerned that your child’s symptoms of grief are prolonged or impacting their daily functioning, seek help right away.
4. Keep it age appropriate
Normally when we discuss young people committing suicide we tend to think of teenagers. Sadly, suicide rates in pre-adolescent children have been on the rise over the past few decades, with suicide being the third cause of death for American children between the ages of 10 and 14. And of course, teenagers often know younger children, so if you find yourself needing to discuss a friend’s death with a young child, be conscious of the language you use. Be honest, but avoid using graphic details. Encourage them to ask questions and answer them honestly, but simply.
5. Help them address the rumors
Unfortunately, when something as shocking happens as a young person dying by suicide, rumors tend to spread rapidly. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in them, but do address them with your child. Ask them what they’ve heard and explain to them that while some rumors may be true, you don’t know the whole story. Encourage them to refrain from making judgments or casting blame. In every suicide, there are a myriad of contributing factors, and it’s ok to never fully understand, “why.”
6. Identify the dangers
Remind your child that no matter what their friend was going through, they were not thinking clearly in that moment and were suffering from a distorted sense of reality. Emphasize that there is always a better alternative than taking one’s own life and that one impulsive decision can have devastating, permanent consequences. This is especially important if their friend had been using drugs or alcohol; remind your child that substance abuse clouds a person’s judgement and impulse control, increasing the risk of harming oneself or others.
7. Unmask depression
Though there are often red flags before suicide occurs, many people who die by suicide don’t express blatant sadness or depression to their peers. Your child may feel shocked to know that the friend who had just been at their house last week laughing and dancing around to the latest hit single could have been suffering so tremendously inside. Explain to your child the dangers of masking depression, and the importance of having someone to turn to when life feels overwhelming.
8. Establish their go-to
Depending on your child’s age, they may be very eager to come to you with problems, or they may be keeping their distance as they try to establish their independence. Either way is ok, as long as they have some trustworthy adult(s) to turn to when they are managing difficult emotions. Ask them who they feel comfortable confiding in and make sure they are aware of the counseling and mental health resources available at their school.
Parents and professionals, check out this toolkit for schools after a suicide
9. Revisit the conversation
Coming to terms with the death of a friend is not something that happens overnight. Revisit the conversation periodically, no matter how many screams of, “I’m fine!” you may be met with. Grieving can be a long and tumultuous process, and it helps to remind them that you are always there to love and support them as they navigate through the ups and downs.
10. Visit a specialist
While parenting has many anticipated challenges, no parent can ever feel prepared for the shocking tragedy of having a child’s friend die by suicide. If your child seems to have difficulty with their daily functioning, seems isolated, aggressive, lacks interests in fun activities, has changed eating or sleeping patterns, or is overly focused on death, seek help right away.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Variations can help
Cynthia Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. She is experienced in supporting parents, teens, and children in working through grief, depression, and relationship struggles.
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