(this material was taken from North Dakota State University's website and authored by Sean Brotherson, Ph.D., Family Science Specialist, NDSU Extension Service and April Anderson, Undergraduate Student, Child Development and Family Science)*
Talking to Young Children (ages 4 to 8), What to Say and Do
• Talk with young children about their feelings. Help them label their feelings so they will better understand and be more aware of what is going on inside them. You might ask: "How are you feeling? Are you feeling sad or angry? Do you feel sad or angry only once in awhile or do you feel it a lot of the time?"
• Encourage young children to express their feelings. Talking to them helps to strengthen the connection between them and you. It also lets them know they can share feelings safely with adults they know. Teach that feelings of hurt and anger can be shared with others who can understand and give support.
• If a child does not seem to feel comfortable expressing feelings verbally, support other ways to express feelings, such as writing, drawing or being physically active. Give young children healthy ways to express themselves and work through feelings.
• Explain to young children that being sad from time to time is normal. Sadness is the emotion people feel in times of loss, disappointment or loneliness. Teach children that talking about feeling sad or angry, and even shedding tears or being upset, is OK. Be clear that they should talk to others or do something else when feeling sad, but should not seek to harm themselves in any way.
• Take steps to ensure that young children do not have easy access to materials they could use to harm themselves. Be certain knives, pills and particularly firearms are inaccessible to all children.
• Focus on active involvement with young children that provides them with a focus for their feelings and energies. Play games, participate in sports, visit playgrounds and do other activities together. Stay closely connected to them so you can intervene and provide support if necessary.
Talking to Adolescents (ages 9 to 13), What to Say and Do
• Be aware of depression and its symptoms in adolescent children. Depression often does not go away on its own and is linked to risk of suicide when it lasts for periods of two weeks or more. Talk with individuals who have knowledge of depression in children to further understand the symptoms and how to intervene.
• Adolescents have many stressors in their lives and sometimes consider suicide as an escape from their worries or feelings. Be aware of your adolescent's stressors and talk with him or her about them. Let your child know you care and emphasize that "suicide is not an option; help is always available." Suicide is a permanent choice.
• Assist adolescents so they don't become overwhelmed with negative thoughts, which can lead to thoughts of suicide. Help them learn to manage negative thinking and challenge thoughts of hopelessness. If needed, treatment or therapy can help an adolescent deal with negative thoughts.
• Emphasize that alcohol and drugs are not a helpful source of escape from the stressors of an adolescent's life. An adolescent who is suffering from depression and also turns to alcohol and drugs is at a greater risk of attempting suicide.
• Be attentive to risk factors in an adolescent's life, as suicide is not always planned at younger ages. Recognizing the warning signs that might be leading to suicide is important.
• Encourage adolescents to talk about and express their feelings. Provide a listening ear and be a support so they can visit with you about how they feel. Adolescents deal much better with tough circumstances when they have at least one person who believes in them.
Talking to Teens (ages 14 to 18), What to Say and Do
• Recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in teens. These may include feelings of sadness, excessive sleep or inability to sleep, weight loss or gain, physical and emotional fatigue, continuing anxiety, social withdrawal from friends or school, misuse of drugs or alcohol and related symptoms. Intervene and get professional help and resources if necessary.
• Ask teens about what they are feeling, thinking and doing. Open communication helps teens talk freely about their concerns and seek support. Make yourself available to talk with teens often. Avoid being critical or judgmental; listen, don't immediately "fix" the problem.
• Provide support if a teen expresses thoughts related to suicide or shares stories of suicide attempts. Stay with him or her and seek additional help. Guide the teen to professional therapists who can give assistance.
• Listen to teens and pay attention to language related to hurting themselves or others, wanting to "go away" or "just die," or similar ideas. Such expressions always should be taken seriously. Respond with support for the teen and access resources to provide further counseling or guidance.
• Encourage teens to be attentive to their peers and quickly report to a respected adult any threats, direct or indirect, that suggest the possibility of suicide. Teens often are aware of such threats among their peers before others and can serve to support peers and provide resources. Talk about the idea that being a true friend means not keeping secrets that could lead to someone being dead.
*"Talking to Children About Suicide," North Dakota State University, Sean Brotherson, Ph.D., Family Science Specialist, NDSU Extension Service and April Anderson, Undergraduate Student, Child Development and Family Science, http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs637w.htm
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