This story by The Conversation is republished as part of our series of articles written by local and international academics and researchers who are experts in their field. The views expressed don't necessarily reflect that of Parent24 or Media24.
Unfortunately many lives are touched by suicide. And while you may want to hide the means of death from your child, this may not be possible, especially in the age of social media.
This has provided a modern difficulty for practitioners in the field, and it may be hard for parents to make sure their child is getting the information they need and in a way they can understand and cope with.
The problem of suicide contagion (especially among young people, and those in rural areas) is well documented. That is, once a young person takes their life, this may increase the risk of others in their network doing the same.
How then should you discuss suicide with your child? The first thing to consider is their age.
Under ten years
At this age, children legitimately may not understand that death is permanent - “can we ring him in heaven?”, “who’s going to feed Nana after she’s buried?” are typical questions from kids this age.
They likely won’t understand the concept of suicide either - and on balance it’s probably not constructive to introduce a topic that may be well above their heads.
- Also see: Kids who choose death
However, should someone else tell your child about a suicide, and they seem to somewhat grasp it, you should be prepared to discuss it. A good rule of thumb is, if they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know.
In terms of what to say, the simple truth will suffice.
Mr X was very, very sad and didn’t want to live anymore, but when people get that sad, their brains don’t work properly and they make bad decisions. Mr X’s family will be so sad about this (like we all were when Fido died), so it’s just really horrible for everyone when someone makes a bad decision like that…
There is nothing wrong at this age with pointing out the “badness” or “wrongness” of Mr X’s decision.
Children under ten are very black and white in their thinking, so avoid getting into complex arguments about possible shades of grey in these scenarios.
Fortunately, suicides in children under ten are extremely rare, so concerns of copycat behaviour are not as pressing.
Some considerations for adolescents are:
1) they tend to catastrophise problems in their life, and have difficulty understanding what is expected of them or what is available to help them
2) they do not have a complex or realistic view of themselves or the world they live in
3) their identity is not fully developed, leading to less self-understanding
4) they legitimately lack the brainpower to foresee long-term consequences of their actions, especially in terms of how they might affect other people. Instead they tend to live in the moment and are egocentric, impulsive and emotional in their decision-making.
In their case, discussing factual information about suicide is an excellent place to start.
- Also see: My child depressed? Never
With teenagers you can discuss suicide as multi-factorial in its nature: people take their own lives for many different reasons, some have reasons that appear quite understandable (self-euthanasia in the case of terminal illness) others are totally baffling (no known condition or trigger).
Emphasising the transience or manageable aspects of these factors is important. Remind your teen that suicide is a permanent decision made in response to a temporary problem.
Avoid any hint of romanticising suicide, particularly glamourising the aftermath (how many people attended the funeral, the number of people who showed outpourings of grief on Facebook).
- Also see: Know the warning signs of suicide
Romanticising has been shown by some studies to increase suicide rates among adolescents. Conversely, presenting suicide in a factual light has been associated with a lower risk of imitation.
SADAG suicidal emergency
0800 567 567
Dr Reddy's Help Line
0800 21 22 23
Pharmadynamics Police &Trauma Line
0800 20 50 26
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
0800 70 80 90
SADAG 24hr Helpline
0800 12 13 14Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students
0800 41 42 43
0800 55 44 33
Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline
0800 12 13 14
Suicide Crisis Line
0800 567 567
SADAG Mental Health Line
011 234 4837
Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour
0861 435 787
- Teenage suicide: What parents need to know
- Spotlight: Teen suicide - What to look out for
- 9 tips for aiding a depressed teen
Have you tried to tackle this topic with your kids? How did you do it? Tell us by emailing to emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to receive Parent24 stories directly to your inbox.