“Ask yourself, what messages is this teen really hearing, and are they being correctly interpreted? He says he took an overdose because he didn’t get into his first-choice college or didn’t make the varsity basketball team and his parents were counting on it. Are his parents really that disappointed? Do they seem to attach too much importance to these goals or are they being supportive? She cuts her wrists when she suspects she is pregnant. Why does a pregnancy mean no other option than suicide? Are her parents going to throw her out of the house because she was sexually active? Often we learn that the young person has ‘catastrophized’ the crisis – imagining and believing only the worst possible reactions from others.”
– Slaby & Garfinkel (1994, p. 183)
Talking to kids about suicide
It’s sad, but we live in a world of false pretenses. From a young age, children are taught many messages that alienate them from their true nature and cause them to become deeply ashamed about particular aspects of who and what they are. As kids grow older, the shame and condemnation they are exposed to only increases. They see how we persecute those who are different on television shows, and learn how having certain struggles can earn you eternal ostracism. They hear the things people say about others behind their back, and can watch how quickly people are to pounce upon any weakness or failing in others. The end result is that by the time a child is a teenager; their psyche is surrounded in a web of false pretenses and defense mechanisms. Like the rest of us, they’re not allowed to be human anymore: they’ve already established a thick false shell that they hide their true feelings behind.
So understand that even as you engage in these discussions with a suicidal person, there may still be many things he or she isn’t telling you. It sometimes takes therapists as long as a year of regular sessions (sometimes more) to get a person to open up about the true source of inner turmoil. This is especially true when it comes to issues of sexuality, which happen to be the primary contributor to most teen suicides.
Not only does this mean people may not be completely forthright about what is actually bothering them, but it often means these shame-inducing issues which they are reluctant to talk about have been blown out of proportion. The person is overestimating the degree of condemnation that they would actually face, judging themselves harsher than others might.
How to get a teen to open up to you
There are several things you can do to convey a non-judgmental atmosphere and make it more likely that a person will open up to you:
- One way to break down the barrier a little faster is to tell them stories about others and offer up comments. In this way you can volunteer your non-judgmental opinion about certain issues, rather than have them systematically test you in a million different ways to see if you’re someone who can be trusted with their deepest, darkest secrets without judging them.
- Remember that any suicidal person, but teens especially, can be quick to sense a critical or condemning tone even when none was intended. So be sure your remarks don’t come off as angry, irritated, or impatient. As the same time, nod your head in agreement often and do your best to convey a sympathetic tone through body language.
- Tell them stories of your own struggles as a teen or in life, if appropriate. By making yourself vulnerable like this, you make it easier for them to open up about their own vulnerabilities.
- At every opportunity you have, make comments about how sad and irritating it is that people are so quick to judge and condemn one another.
- If you’re a parent dealing with a suicidal child, you need to recognize that there are some things teens simply can’t trust you with. Like most parents, you’ve burnt those bridges beyond repair years ago. Through their actions, most parents have made sexuality a taboo, shame-ridden, and deeply embarrassing thing to discuss. The problem, these bridges you burned happen to be the #1 path to teen suicides; the universal distress that dwarfs all others. This is why it’s important you find a way to make others available to your child. Even if they give you another reason for their distress, assume they might not be able to talk about it with you, and then get them people they can talk to.