Should You Explain Suicide to Young Kids?
My oldest just turned 9. His innocence is still fairly solid, but I see the edges starting to fray a bit.
I'm not ready. I want to protect Jack from everything that is ugly or "grown up" about the world. I don't want to talk about sex. I don't want to talk about getting your heart broken, either. He still believes in Santa Claus, for goodness sakes! At the same time, I know that if I pretend these things don't exist then he won't be prepared for what's coming.
Truth is, though, I'm a newshound. I have the news on constantly in my car and quite often at home. Recently there has been a lot of news about suicide. My son asked me in the car last week, "Mom, what's suicide?"
First I thought, "I don't want my kid to be aware that it's possible to kill yourself. He shouldn't even know it's an option. Now is not the time. It's too soon." But my mouth took over and I immediately explained to him in basic terms what suicide is. And then, I saw my opening.
So many people, including educators and therapists, say that you have to get information and values into your children when they are young. I know we need to teach children tolerance, to be kind and not to bully. I work hard to make sure it is very clear to both my kids that they should neither harm others with their words and actions nor should they stand by and watch someone else do it.
But how well are we doing at telling our children what to do on the very worst days, when they may feel like their only option is leaving this world?
Now was the time for me to talk about it. Right now, not later.
I told Jack that everyone in life has times when they feel left out. They may be teased, made fun of or bullied. They may be publicly embarrassed or shamed. It may happen a little bit, or a lot. Some get it much worse than others, but many of us have terribly low moments when we feel all is lost. One's personality, general mental health, unique situation and support structure probably have a lot to do with how we are able to handle those moments. For some, it may be easier to take it all in stride whereas for others it may seem like life's not worth living.
I told him that if he ever feels completely alone or ashamed, no matter how bad he is made to feel or allows himself to feel about who he is, suicide is never the answer. NEVER. It might seem like it, but it isn't. Instead of making hurt go away, it creates permanent, incessant hurt for the many good people who love you. I told him I will always be there to talk and to support him, and if he doesn't want to talk to me there are others.
I know what it's like to feel like there's no way out. I considered suicide myself when I had postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder but instead I reached out for professional help, even though I was deathly afraid of telling anyone what was going through my mind. Oddly, I didn't think to mention that experience to my son during our conversation -- I went into protective mama bear mode -- but it just gives me more to share with him when we have another chat down the road. No doubt, we'll have to have additional talks about this.
Did I make a mistake being so open with a 9-year-old about this awful subject? I don't think so. The National Association of School Psychologists says this: "Talking to your children about suicide will not put thoughts into their head. In fact, all available evidence indicates that talking to your child lowers the risk of suicide. The message is, 'Suicide is not an option, help is available.'"
We had that talk. He said "OK, Mom." I hope he really heard me.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.