When my seven-year-old son approached me at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning before I’d taken a single sip of my coffee and asked: Why do people kill themselves? What is suicide?
I was ready.
Several years ago I was given the opportunity to attend a class that taught parents how to talk to their kids about some of “the big stuff.” Two main takeaways were that every topic is manageable if you approach it with age and maturity in mind and that these big topics will come up earlier than you expect. It’s important to decide what you want to say before it happens, especially when it comes to mental health.
What Is Your Parenting Motto?
As parents, my husband and I have a parenting motto. Our motto is: Our job is to show love, to teach, and to protect.
Our parenting motto guides us as we decide how we will approach the heavy topics such as sexuality, pornography, grief and loss, and mental health, as well as the not-so-heavy topics like friendship and sharing.
Years ago we unintentionally started using little mantras that reflected our parenting motto. Phrases like “to keep you healthy and safe,” or “because we show kindness even when we disagree” are heard around our house often. As a happy accident, the mantras gave our family a common set of vocabulary to use and build on. Several weeks ago our five year old was struggling with the concept that the seatbelt must be worn in the car all the times. Not just sometimes, but every single time.
I explained: Mommy’s job is to keep you safe. The seatbelt helps me keep you safe, okay?
He understood right away. The seatbelt went from a troublesome object to a tool we use to show our love for him, to keep him safe.
What Is Your Health Mantra?
Sadly, if childhood suicide was not on your radar before the pandemic, it probably is now. Cook Children’s Joy Campaign is doing a great job at raising awareness and educating parents.
But one of the social media posts they made recently explained that as a society we still do not have a common vocabulary to use with our kids when discussing this crucial issue.
Fortunately for our family, we do have a common vocabulary when it comes to mental and physical health because of our family motto, and the subsequent mantras that come out of it.
Our kids know that we love them, and part of our job as parents is to keep them healthy and safe. When my son asked me what suicide was bright and early that day, I did not have to panic. I had a plan. I had shared language that my son already understood to explain it. Our family health mantra is “We make choices that keep our body and our brain healthy and safe.” We use this mantra to help explain anything from getting a shot at the doctor’s office and remembering to put on a bike helmet to confronting a sibling when he or she has done something hurtful.
Use Age-Appropriate Words
Because our children are still young, they only understand what they can see. They understand the concept of physical health because they can see a person’s arm in a cast. They know what it means to be sick because it’s actually happened to them personally. So we took cues from what our kids already understand about physical health and applied it to mental health.
Before my son ever came to me to ask why someone would kill themselves, I had already planned to compare the known concept of physical sickness to emotional sickness.
As adults, we tend to overcomplicate things or get too technical. If you plan your language out ahead of time, you can avoid doing that. Remember, all conversations are manageable if you keep age and maturity in mind. Your middle school child may be ready to learn about the distinctions between chronic depression and bipolar disorder, but chances are your seven-year-old is not, so keep it simple!
If you are interested in how this all came together, I reviewed my Nest Cam footage (yes, my house is totally wired up, my kids are wild) and this is how our conversation played out.
Son: Mommy, why do people kills themselves? What is suicide?
Me: Well bud, when someone intentionally kills themselves, that action is suicide. So, suicide is when a person chooses to kill themselves.
Son: Why would they do that?
Me: You know how our bodies can get sick right? Well, our brains can get sick, too. What would you do if you saw a friend fall on the playground and hurt themselves?
Son: I would go and tell a teacher.
Me: That’s right! If you see someone who is hurt, or sick, you find an adult you can trust and get help. Who are some adults you know you can trust?
Son: Teachers. Mommy and Daddy. Oh, my doctor too. Nannie and Bop Bop.
Me: Yes, that’s a great list. So if a friend was hurt or sick, you would go and tell the teacher so they could get help right? You can do the same thing if you think someone’s brain is sick too, or if your own brain is sick. Do you remember when you had a fever and you came and told mommy you didn’t feel good?
Me: Remember how I took your temperature and then gave you some medicine? I did that because it’s my job to keep you safe and healthy. You felt bad, and I was able to help you.
Son: How do I know if someone’s brain is sick?
Me: That’s a great question, and it’s a little tough. Maybe they aren’t acting like they usually do, or they may talk about hurting themselves. But other times, they may not say anything. That’s what makes it so tough. Remember how we always make choices that keep our body and our brain safe? I want you to know that if you are feeling like your brain is sick, you can always tell mommy or daddy, or another adult who you trust. It’s our job to keep you healthy and safe and we want to help. We love you.
Son: What would you do? Like, how do people fix their brains?
Me: A lot of the time, talking about how you feel helps. If you were feeling very sad all of the time, you could talk to me, and I would make sure we are able to talk to a doctor who knows just what to do. We would find the right help. Sometimes, like when you had a fever, medicine is what you need. And that’s okay. Remember, we make choices that keep our body and our brain safe and sometimes that means we need medicine.
Son: Okay. Can we have doughnuts for breakfast?
Our conversation ended there. Did I touch on everything related to suicide? No. Did I dive deep into personal responsibility vs societal responsibility? No. I effectively presented our family mantra on mental health and reassured my son that I was there to help, to keep him safe, and get him the answers he needed.
By welcoming the tough conversations rather than avoiding them, we can keep the lines of communication open, and let our kids know they can come to us for anything and everything they need.