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Talking to Teens About Suicide

Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey

Q: My kids and their friends are struggling with the suicide of a classmate, and they respond to this tragedy in such different ways. How do we talk to our teenagers about suicide? 

A: The suicide of a young person impacts the whole community. In general, the severity of the response correlates to how connected they were to the deceased. Many of us feel incredibly vulnerable when confronted with the suicide of a young person, and there is often a wide range of emotional responses, which may include helplessness, anger, fear, guilt, shock, anxiety or confusion.

Talk candidly with your kids about the suicide, despite wanting to protect them. An honest discussion about what happened, based on the facts, helps adolescents feel taken care of and reinforces safety, security and trust. Knowing that the loss can be discussed constructively will help them to feel more in control.

Although you will need to initiate the discussion, take cues from your children about what they can handle. Adolescents process grief differently and may need to move in and out of grief in ways that are manageable to them.

As adults, we too struggle to create a context in which we can understand the loss and cope with our own grief.  It is not important to have the right words or all the answers, but to make yourself available to listen and discuss any concerns your adolescent has.

Respect their feelings with non-judgmental responses and offer reassurance when needed. Help them to understand that they can take whatever time and space they need to grieve in their own way. Reinforce that it will not always feel like this and instill hope that their grief will become less intense over time.

Other ways you can provide support at home includes:

  • Recognize there is there is often a secondary loss – which is the adolescent’s feelings of safety and control
  • Give your adolescent opportunities to make informed choices, in order to regain some control
  • Provide structure, routine and limits to establish predictability
  • Reinforce that it is okay to move in and out of grief, to experience pleasure or return to their usual activities without guilt
  • Reinforce self care, including healthy eating, exercise and good sleep
  • Help them to understand their reactions are “normal” and they are not falling apart, despite feeling so vulnerable.

Support is critical after a suicide and monitoring should be ongoing. Engage your adolescents and reinforce that you are available to help them through their grief whatever form it takes. They cannot control how their grief plays out and will need your encouragement, compassion and gentle persistence in negotiating what this loss means to them and their community.

Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a therapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She works with children, adolescents and families and can be reached at 313.408.2180 or Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.

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