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3 Strategies to Talk With Kids About Suicidal Thoughts

Tips for parents and health care professionals.

Source: Julie A. Fast

A few months ago after a intense reaction to a sleep medication, I had the persistent idea I should jump out of my window.

The idea came to me in a wave of images, thoughts and feelings all at once. As though I were watching a movie, I saw myself jump out of the window. I then heard a voice say, “You should jump out of your window.” And finally, I had the intense feeling that everything really would be a lot better if I jumped out of my window.

Luckily, as a person originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later a schizo affective diagnosis, I have over 30 years of living with suicidal thoughts and recognized that I was sick and got help. It was a terrible and scary experience, but I have a mental illness and know it’s simply the way my brain works.

Imagine what it’s like for a child to go through such a suicidal episode where they hear, see and feel the same sensations as adults and yet there is zero life experience to help them through the episode. Just as I taught myself to manage suicidal thoughts, adults can teach very young children to do the same. The goal is shining a light on the symptoms, explaining that they are a normal part of a misfiring brain and then having a plan in place to help the child find stability. We can do all of this while keeping a child safe and nurtured.

Here are the three strategies

1. Normalize and demystify suicidal thoughts. Think of how you would explain diabetes to a child. Discussions of blood sugar, insulin, food choices, and how to deal with an emergency would be on the table immediately. Probably at the dinner table itself. You can do the same with suicidal thoughts. They are a chemical reaction in an unwell brain. Serotonin is no different than insulin. Parents are usually so scared of the topic, it becomes taboo and the child picks up on this feeling. When you get comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts, the child can do the same.

2. Use a script and stick to the words. Practice what you will say when your child has a suicidal thought. Here is how we would talk to an insulin-dependent child about wanting to eat cake at a birthday party:

"It’s hard to watch your friends and everyone at school eating what they want. I wish that you could eat whatever you wanted and your body would just deal with it. That’s not how it works for you. Your body is special and needs more attention than the bodies of other kids. We can work together to deal with the upset you feel when you want to be like everyone else, but have to take a different path. What ideas do you have to make it easier on yourself when you see kids eat cake? Let’s create a plan that is just for you and your needs."

Here is a similar example regarding suicidal thoughts:

"Let’s talk about your brain. Did you know that even though it’s solid, it’s filled with chemicals that move around and make your brain work in amazing ways? Some of us have chemicals that stay on the right path. This creates thoughts and behaviors that keep us stable and happy. They do their job and the brain pokes along just as it needs to. Other people have different brains. The chemicals take different and sometimes unexpected paths. This can lead to changes in the thoughts that feel incredibly real, but they are usually fleeting and not what you actually think and feel. Talking out loud about these thoughts, especially if you feel scared about staying alive or have thoughts of death, can help us decide what comes from the real you and what is from the brain chemicals that simply aren’t working correctly."

3. Create a family plan to recognize, manage and prevent suicidal episodes. Suicidal thoughts are deadly symptoms that have to be tackled from day one. It’s no different than a child who could die from not managing blood sugar. There can be an open, honest and matter of fact family plan for suicidal thoughts as well. My family has one. My nephew learned about this plan when he was very young. He is now 15 and we openly talk about my suicidal thoughts and the idea that he might have a genetic predisposition to them as well.

I can’t count the times I’ve said, “Darn it! I’m suicidal again. Better check for triggers!” to the people in my life. If my mom sees that I’m depressed, she asks, “Are you suicidal?” That isn’t an easy question for a mom, but it’s an essential question. My nephew has been raised with the idea that my bipolar disorder generated suicidal thoughts might be scary, but they are simply an illness that can be treated.

Using Therapeutic Poetry to Talk with Kids

My upcoming book, Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poetry for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression uses what I call therapeutic poetry to help kids put their experiences into words. One little boy in the book is named B. He’s 8. Here he talks about suicidal thoughts with his father:

Kaytie Spellman, used with permission
Source: Kaytie Spellman, used with permission

B. Gets Real

If I jump out of the window I’ll feel better
The troubles I feel will no longer matter
My mind tells me jump
My heart tells me no
I’m too young to know should I stay or should I go
His father replies…..
Little B. sweet heart, life of my soul
Jumping out of a window is a sign of the trolls
They are squiggles in the chemicals that affect what you do
Jumping isn’t a choice, it’s a thought and not you

I created the poems for adults, especially parents and health care professionals to read to the very young who have diagnosed mental health symptoms. This gives words to the feelings and images the very young experience, but don’t know how to explain.

Talking openly about suicidal thoughts normalizes the fear that abounds when our brain chemicals tell us to harm our bodies. I talked openly with my nephew about my suicidal episode when I thought of jumping out of my window. He said:

"When I heard you were suicidal a few months ago, I was scared, but I knew you could handle it. It’s your work and you know what to do. You have always told me that certain medications can cause suicidal thoughts for people with bipolar, so I wasn’t surprised when you had the reaction to the sleep med. You have always told me it’s ok to use the word ‘suicidal.’ It has always been there in my life, so no, it wasn’t awful when you got sick again."

This is a 15-year-old kid talking. Just think of how we can help kids who do have suicidal thoughts talk about them as they would diabetes.

When do you talk to kids about suicidal thoughts? The minute you think they might be suicidal. Talking about suicidal thoughts in an appropriate and accessible way will NOT cause a child to die. It will help the child live a stable, productive and happy life. When you normalize suicidal thoughts, create a script to talk to the child in an appropriate way and then create a family health care plan that involves health care professionals. Children can learn they can live with and manage the emotions and symptoms they find scary.

It’s never to early to talk with kids about their brains.

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Julie Fast is the author of Loving Someone With Bipolar: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder: A 4-Step Plan for You and Your Loved Ones to Manage the Illness and Create Lasting Stability and Get It Done When You're Depressed.

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