Talking To Your Teen About Suicide

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
Diane Diederich / iStock

As is often the case, the question came as we were driving down a busy highway, on our way to track practice. My mind was cluttered with logistical details for dinner, homework, and a meeting scheduled for later that night. I was jolted out of my reverie when my 13-year-old son said, “Hey, Mom? Can we talk about suicide for a minute?”

Nothing like a frank question from your teen to bring you crashing back to the moment, right?

Because I wanted to give him my full attention, I waited until I could navigate my car into a parking spot where I could calmly ask him what it was he wanted to discuss. Sweat started to pool on my lower back as I braced myself for what he had to say. While I waited, I studied his face, tried to reconcile the manly, angled features that are slowly crowding out the round features of childhood. It seemed like an eternity before he answered me.

He told me that his school had done a presentation on suicide prevention. It shocked him, he said, and he was processing his feelings. He relayed some of the stories that had been shared, and with tears in his eyes, he recounted a classmate’s story, bravely shared with the class by a child with whom he’d attended school since kindergarten. He looked at me and said, “What if he’d gone through with it?” We sat in silence for a few moments as I, too, pondered the weight of such an unspeakable, irrevocable act.

As parents, we live in fear of our children hurting emotionally. We watch them navigate cliques, bullies, and tough situations, all the while praying that we’ve armed them with the fortitude to bear the stress of being kids and teens. We hear whispers of parents who have suffered the unendurable agony of a child lost to suicide, and when the unimaginable happens, we hug our children tightly and hope that won’t be us someday.

Suicide is every parent’s nightmare. When you are raising a teen, it is never far from your mind that your child could succumb to the demons in their head. Having survived my own teenage angst, I often worry that my son is wrestling with similar feelings of inadequacy and isolation and that he’s secretly unhappy in his skin.

It’s easy to become hypersensitive to every argument your kid has with their friends, and it’s hard to resist stepping in to help them smooth out classroom battles. Mostly, it’s hard to acknowledge that the emotions and feelings of the teenage years are a milestone to be tackled, just like rolling over and sleeping through the night for infants.

But it’s hard not to worry that your child isn’t OK.

And so, on that spring evening, I listened to my son process his feelings. We talked about his classmate’s situation and about how isolated the student must have felt during that difficult time. We talked about his fear of losing a friend to suicide and the finality of death. When my son asked me why someone would resort to such drastic action, I gently explained that for some, there are pains that feel like too much to bear. His eyes again filled with tears and he said, “It took a lot of bravery for my classmate to get help. And even more to stand up and share with us.”

Brave indeed, son.

Because the moments my teen opens up to me are fleeting, I took that time to ask him how he felt emotionally. Track practice forgotten, we talked about how he felt socially and whether he felt accepted by his peers. I shared stories of my own teenage years, times when I felt excluded or dark moments where I questioned my place in the world. Mostly, we just talked about what he has been feeling as he is navigating the unforgiving halls of middle school.

As I asked him questions, I expected him to answer with exasperation and characteristic eye-rolling. I thought he’d give me short, curt “It’s fine, Mom” and “Don’t worry—I have friends, OK?” answers in an effort to shut me up so he could get to his running warm-ups. I braced myself to hear that he dealt with cliques and bullies and that he was finding the age of 13 to be as hard as I remembered it seemed.

He said none of those things.

He told me that he felt he was where he needed to be in life. While he admitted that middle school could sometimes feel like a minefield of emotions and drama, he felt surrounded by kids all going through the same things. He said he felt comforted when he saw his friends with braces, acne, and too-short pants from unexpected growth spurts. He has friends to talk to, teachers he can trust, and classes he enjoys.

He said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m OK, I promise. And if I’m not, I’ll tell you,” and I realized that, while there are no guarantees in life, our kids are more resilient than we know. Our experiences as teens aren’t our kids’, and sometimes, it’s OK to let your guard down and worry a little less. They will survive being teenagers, just like we did.

As I watched my son run off to the track, the setting sun making him look like a silhouette against the sky, in that moment, I was sure my kid was OK. And I allowed myself to exhale a tiny sigh of relief.

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