Clint Donaldson, Licensed Professional Counselor with The Center Counseling, shares how you can talk to your kids about suicide and self-harm. Clint offices out of Trietsch on Tuesdays. Learn more about Clint and how to make an appointment with him at tmumc.org/counseling.
It’s August. In Texas that means extremely hot days, slightly less hot evenings, and “back- to-school.” For those with kids, you’re immersed in new schedules, practices, band rehearsals, and extra-curricular activities. It’s a busy time for families after the “slower-pace” of summer. Increased stress and pressure can also mean increased depression and anxiety that can result in suicidal thoughts, attempts, and self-harm. When one person in the family struggles, all struggle, making it crucial to talk with our kids about this topic.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines suicide as “death caused by self-injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.” With this in mind, we define suicidal thoughts as any thoughts a person has concerning death or how they might cause their own death. In contrast to suicide, suicidal thoughts can lie on a large spectrum from thoughts such as, “I wish I were dead,” to thinking about the specific details to kill themselves and even begin to work out details of how to carry out this plan. Self-harm can be defined as “non-suicidal self-injury.” This is a broad term that can include cutting, burning the skin, pulling hair, pinching, biting, hitting, and/or scratching one’s self. Eating disorders and use of drugs and alcohol can also be forms of self-harm. All of these continue to plague our students as they begin school and progress throughout the year.
Why would someone contemplate suicide or hurting themselves? While it is complicated, one helpful description is that those who experience suicidal or self-harm thoughts feel trapped within themselves, with no other options.
As a parent, this can be extremely terrifying or uncomfortable. Children and teenagers should be far from death or thinking about death. Without caring adults who are willing to speak on these subjects, more kids find themselves in extreme circumstances with seemingly few choices, leading them to conclude that suicide and self-harm are the only answers. In an effort to be a resource, here are three tips to talking to your child or loved one about suicide and self-harm.
- First, start the conversation. Seems simple, but for most parents, all it takes is starting the conversation to show support and care. Talking about suicide and self-harm can feel awkward, but more pressure builds when things are not discussed. A few conversation starters could include: “I know that this may not be easy to share, but what can you tell me about your experience with suicide and self-harm?” or “I’m worried about you. It looks like you are going through a difficult time with (listing specific behaviors). I’m here to listen.” By showing care and listening, this opens the door for more conversation.
- Second, do your homework. Know the current trends in teen suicide and self-harm through online interactions, apps and more. Noticing the warning signs will help open up conversations and provide help. A few resources include: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and The APA has a video that is helpful in understanding emotions in your teen that can be found here. Another resource from a faith perspective, is this guide by Saddleback Church with a variety of information on mental illness.
- Finally, provide support without attempting to “fix” a problem. Let them know that you are here to help, listen, and to be a guide to finding resources, not attempting to fix them. This will reinforce the belief that they are safe, and someone wants to understand what they are going through, not just fix them. If you sense that they are beginning to pull back, pause and step back from the conversation in order to find a different approach that might be more helpful for them to open up and allow the conversation to continue.
My hope is these tips will help you and your family navigate these difficult struggles. Remember, we have a hope that brings strength and perseverance, beyond our own expectations for our children and families. 1 Peter 5:10 reminds us of it in this way:
“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”