In the recently released documentary, Tell My Story, Jason Reid grieves the loss of his 14-year-old son Ryan to suicide while traveling the country talking to others about their own experiences with it. His mission? To help prevent teenage suicide by teaching parents and adults to talk with kids openly about the topic.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-24. In 2017, there were more than 6,200 adolescent suicides — and that number is growing. Reid believes that parents are the only solution to what he calls “the greatest mental health crisis of our lifetime.”
Dr. Mark Goulston, who is featured in the documentary, is a psychiatrist who has been specializing in suicide prevention for 25 years. He says there are lots of tools to help initiate meaningful conversations. Goulston’s recommendation to parents is to be proactive. Habitually talking to your kids will allow you to understand them and hopefully enable you to sense if something may be wrong.
How to Communicate Proactively
Goulston suggests families do a check in each day. Family members share the best thing and the most frustrating or upsetting thing that happened to them that day. This accomplishes several things. It gives you some deeper insight to what your child is facing on a daily basis. It also allows your child to see that even you, as a parent, face adversities.
“You’re teaching them that good and bad things happen every day and we get through them,” Goulston tells Parentology. Kids who see their parents are vulnerable will be more likely to talk about their own challenges. “We need to model vulnerability as opposed to not showing it. And the vulnerability isn’t to scare them, it’s to show vulnerability and that it hurts, and that you’re afraid, but you still pushed on.”
That said, it’s important that you listen to your child and explore their feelings. Goulston cautions against trying to fix or solve your child’s problem.
“You don’t give advice,” he says. “What you want to do is go deeper. So what I suggest to parents is when you hear a word that has emotion or hyperbole you want to explore that. ‘Say more about the awful part. Say more about what was great.’”
Sharing in the experience with your child helps them understand that they’re not alone in their struggles and triumphs. “As a family, when you start sharing those things it’s a great lesson for your kids,” Goulston says. He adds that there are many prompts you can use as a family to initiate conversation.
- What are you most excited and worried about tomorrow?
- Tomorrow, let’s all commit to doing something we don’t want to do but we know is good for us.
- What is something that we felt like quitting but we committed to it and stuck with it?
- Find something tomorrow to be grateful for and report back.
What if Your Child Is Struggling?
During his 25 years as a suicide prevention specialist, Goulston never lost a patient. He believes it’s because of what he has termed “surgical empathy.”
“Surgical empathy is a way to meet your child where they are,” he says, cautioning parents that children struggling with depression are not always obvious. “What you’re always looking for is a change in behavior. When they’re depressed it’s often not that obvious, because when you’re depressed it feels like you’re totally overwhelmed so you withdraw.”
Goulston suggests being honest with your child. Tell them that every parent you know is worried about their children and you are, too. Often face to face sit-down conversations can feel like lectures to teens so he recommends having this conversation while doing another activity like taking a walk or driving—anything that puts your child at ease. Goulston explains how to meet your child where they are with a series of questions.
- “At its absolute worst, how awful about yourself or your life are you capable of feeling?”
- “When you’re feeling that way, how alone are you feeling?”
- “Take me to the last time that you felt that.”
- “Were you frustrated? What did it make you want to do? What did you do?”
- “Can I ask you a favor? Whenever you’re feeling that way do anything you can to get our attention. It’s not a burden. If we’re not here, find us or text us because we don’t want you to be alone feeling that way.”
Walking your child back through their experience is important, because “When you can get someone to describe something so clearly, they re-feel it,” says Goulston. Letting your child know that they do not have to feel those things alone can help them feel more open to communicating with you.
Proactive communication about daily struggles and triumphs will help your kids see and practice the coping skills they’ll need throughout life. Depression and suicide are topics that are uncomfortable to discuss, but having those discussions could be what saves your teen’s life.