Talking to your child about suicide

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022 03:52 | By

Last week, 15-year-old Memusi Sankon, son of nominated MP David Sankok allegedly died by suicide. The teen’s death after an alleged disagreement with his father over school issues has shocked many parents.

Rita Asewe recalls how she contemplated suicide as a teenage girl because she thought no one loved her. Sometimes, she would tell her parents how she was feeling. They constantly shrugged her off with words such as, ‘you need to sort out your life’ or ‘if you want to kill yourself, do it outside my home.’ 

“I first had suicidal thoughts when I was 14. I tried to talk to my parents about it, but they always ignored me and blamed me for being problematic unlike my other siblings,” she says.

They took it lightly and would often refer to her as an attention seeker. “I confided in  a relative who asked them to be supportive and show me love, but they still didn’t want to hear me out at any given attempt,” she says.

Breaking the ice

Eventually, Rita decided to seek professional help. She was offered free counselling at Nairobi Baptist Church and this helped her overcome her suicidal thoughts.

Many parents are wary about broaching a serious and sensitive topic such as suicide. They fear that talking about suicide with their children can give them ideas, something that experts disagree. 

 Esther Mbau a counselling psychologist at Kipepeo Wellness Consultants says when an individual is having suicidal thoughts, it is partly because they are not able to visualise the future therefore, they engage in risky behaviour, which may lead to death through suicide.  Although it is still considered a taboo in many households, Mbau says that lately there have been rising cases of suicide and attempted suicide among teenagers, which is a cause of concern.

 Stephanie Wambui, a mother of two says she had to talk to her 12-year-old son on self-love, suicide and self-value when she came across a letter she concluded was a suicidal letter. “I was scared because I thought that I had failed as a parent. I thought I didn’t show enough love to him and thus he heard to turn to his friends in school,” she explains.

Despite the heavy task of breaking the ice, she convinced herself on the importance of talking about suicide without hesitation.“I first started with a simple talk of how important it is to value yourself as opposed to looking at how others feel about you and had several lessons with the aid of the Internet. With time, he had his self-esteem back as he didn’t heel unwanted,” she says.

Warning signs and risk factors

Some of the signs parents should watch out for, Mbau says, include sudden changes of behaviour, cutting of contacts with friends and family members, losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, extreme irritability, change in sleep patterns, change of appetite or giving away possession.

“In general, a parent should be concerned if a child’s mood has changed, if their performance in school has gone down, if they are having problems with friends, or have loss of appetite or sleep,” she says.  

If your child starts talking about death and saying life is too hard, or if they think people would be better off without them, or they don’t want to live anymore, you need to reach out for help immediately.

She advises parents to cultivate a good relationship with their children and just assure the child that everything is okay. “It is important to engage your child, especially if you spot the warning signs,” she says.

Faith Mutegi, a child psychologist says the risk of suicide is reportedly higher among children who perceived their parents’ parenting attitude as strict, strongly controlling, and unsympathetic.

“Authoritarian parenting is an extremely strict parenting style. It places high expectations on children. As an authoritarian parent, you focus more on obedience, discipline, and control. Mistakes tend to be punished harshly and when feedback does occur, it’s often negative. Authoritarian parents punish children for failures while ignoring their achievements. They expect the child not to make mistakes and to obey them. Their form of discipline is often justified as “tough love.” In attempt to be in full control, authoritarian parents often talk to their children without wanting input or feedback,” she explains.

Cultivate good relationship

Some reasons teens may think about ending their lives include: Loss of a loved one to death, divorce, deployment or incarceration, bullying, discrimination, rejection or hostility due to gender identity or sexual orientation, family history of suicide or mental health difficulties, stigma (the belief that it’s wrong or shameful to talk about mental health or suicide), easy access to firearms or other life-threatening tools and substances, witnessing or suffering violence or domestic abuse, cases of suicide by a family, friend or at school, among others.

She concurs that having constant conversations about resilience and positive coping skills  can come in handy in teens’ lives. Equip them to live a life without you and try not to do for them that which they can do for themselves. 

“Communication is a two-way process. If there is a warm, non-judgmental relationship, teenagers generally acknowledge and respect their parents’ values and would seek their advice and support, especially at times of stress,” she says. 

Cultivating a good relationship will open up communication lines. This can be a lifesaving safety valve or guard-rail to the troubled teenager.  Faith advises parents to never shrug off threats of suicide as typical adolescent drama.“Individuals who openly threaten to commit suicide don’t really intend to take their own lives; and that the threat is a desperate plea for help,” she says.

She explains how parents can be tempted to shut down an upsetting conversation by saying, “I don’t want to hear those things,” or “I had a hard time as a teen, but I got over it.” Instead, say, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” Then listen without jumping to correct or rescue them.

“If your teen doesn’t want to have the conversation with you, or you find it uncomfortable, find out if they’d be willing to talk with somebody else. You can also provide them with a list of services they can contact if they ever find themselves in a tough situation,” she says.

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