Talking to Teens about Suicide and Depression

by | Apr 26, 2011 | Depression and Suicide

The mothers of two 14-year-old girls who killed themselves in a suicide pact spoke to TODAY’s Matt Lauer about their heartbreak today, saying their daughters had been victims of cyberbullying and suffered from depression — but they never expected anything this horrible.

“I tried to teach her to see past tomorrow,” said Tricia Behnke, mother of Paige. Both families say they hope to raise awareness about suicide prevention — which has got to be one of the hardest things to talk about, especially with a young teen.

The Today Show asked me for recommendations about how to talk to tweens and teens about depression and suicide for them to post on to start the conversation with young teens. Here are my tips. The important thing is to start the conversation. I know it’s tough, but this could be crucial and potentially life-saving.

How to protect your child from sad news about teen suicide: Don’t

The story of 14-year-old girls who hanged themselves in a suicide pact is tragic beyond belief. Our hearts hurt for these young girls’ families. Though we want to protect our own children from such horrific news, please don’t.

Our children need to know what to do if they hear or suspect a peer is depressed, bullied or even talking about ending their life.

The sad truth is that bullying, depression and suicide affect our tweens and teens. Though childhood or teen suicide is rare, incidents of youth taking their lives due to bullying have been in the news recently. “Bullycide” is now the term for youth who have committed suicide because they were bullied. We also know that most of the time before a teen commits suicide or homicide they do tell someone what they are planning — and usually the person they tell is a peer. Those are just a few reasons why we must talk to our children about these tough and painful subjects.

Tips to talking about suicide and depression with teens

Here are a few points to help you have this important and tough chat with your teen:

1. Review the facts first. Chances are the teen suicide pact story will be discussed at school or amongst your child’s peers, so review the story before you talk. More often than not, the stories your child hears won’t be accurate and can fuel anxiety. That’s why you need to clarify the real facts.

2. Find the right time. Plan to talk with your teen about suicide and depression. Just make sure it’s a relaxed, uninterrupted time. Ideally you want to have this chat during a part of the day when your child is most receptive to talking.

3. Begin with a simple question or direct statement. A few ways to start the dialogue: “Have you heard the sad news about the girls who killed themselves?” or “What are your friends saying?” or “Let’s talk about what you just saw on the news.” Listen to your teen and follow his or her lead.

4. Be honest and direct, but careful. Give the details your child needs to know. Withhold facts or details that are not in your child’s best interests. Be prepared for lots of questions — or none at all. Clear up any misunderstandings about suicide, depression or death that your child may have. If you don’t have an answer, just admit you don’t know and say you’ll get back with the answer. The key is to keep that conversation going!

5. Describe depression.“Yes, it’s a sad story, but I want to talk to you about suicide and depression.” Your talking points might include stressing that depression is not a phase, nor something kids can shrug off by themselves. Depression is a serious disease that needs a medical doctor.

To help your child see the difference between normal sadness and depression, apply the word “too” to your talk: The sadnessis too deep. The depression lasts too long or happens too oftenIt interferes with too many other areas of your life such as your home, school, friends. The best news is, when diagnosed early and properly treated, kids almost always feel better.

Stress to your teen: “If you ever feel so sad or scared or helpless, please come and tell me so we can work together to make things right. Depression is treatable.”

6. Be prepared to be unprepared. There is no way of predicting how your teen will respond to such a tough subject. The key is to answer any or all questions as they emerge. Let your teen know you are always available to listen or help.

7. Talk about cyber-bullying. Emphasize that you recognize bullying and cyberbullying is a growing and serious problem. Ask how often bullying is happening at school, what the school’s bullying policy is and how safe your child and her friends feel. Use the example from this tragic story to stress that cyber-bullying is painful and that intentionally causing another child pain is never acceptable.

Use your chat as the opportunity to review your rules about the Internet and cell phone. Talk about the dangers posting anything that is hurtful — that there are no take backs and that hurtful actions can have horrific consequences.

Also stress that if your child is ever cyber-bullied to please come and tell you. Beware that tweens or teens say they fear telling parents because they do not want computer privileges removed. Be careful so you do not sound too punitive. Instead, stress that the child should print out the evidence and you will contact the server to change the passwords. Other blogs cover cyber-safety issues, how to monitor your child’s online history and signs your child is cyber-bullied.

8. Teach “Tattling” vs “Reporting.” When it comes to preventing tragedies, kids may well be the best metal detectors: the majority of adolescents who commit homicide or suicide share their intentions with a peer. Impress on your teen the importance of telling an adult “legitimate concerns” with the guarantee that their report will be taken seriously. Telling an adult that someone is hurt or could get in trouble is not the same as tattling: It’s acting responsibly. Explain that reporting is not to get a friend in trouble but to help them stay out of trouble or harm.

9. Discuss “safety nets.” Identify adults your child feels safe with, other people they can talk to when issues arise. Stress that people are always available to help your children or their friends with any kind of trouble. Mention the 24-hour confidential USA National Suicide hotline: 800-784-2433 or 800-273-8255, with trained people who can listen and help kids any hour of any day. Above all, emphasize: “No problem is so great that it can’t be solved.”

I will post signs of depression and links to past cyberbullying posts for your information. My hope is that you please use this tragic story to talk to your young teen or adolescent about suicide, depression and bullying. Depression is treatable. We need to make sure our children know they can come and talk to us about anything.

Now go have that conversation!

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development. Refer to the chapters on depression, online safety and cyberbullying in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba