Ten Tips for helping children and teens
Do you know someone who died by suicide? In South Africa where over 10 000 people a year commit suicide. You are not alone.
That’s a big number. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and friends.
Wendy Sinclair, Educational Psychologist says that "suicide can be devastating for family members and friends who are left behind. It is therefore essential that all suicide threats be taken seriously. While contemplating suicide, an adolescent's perception of reality is often quite different from actual reality. If contact is made with a young person who is suspected of showing suicidal tendencies, it is essential to take rapid and appropriate action. Never assume that the situation will cure itself. It is far better to take action if the possibility of suicide exists, than to deal with the aftermath of a suicide.
During this time, you can assist the adolescent to feel less isolated and alone. One can show one's understanding and support by listening and encouraging the person to talk. Instead of asking questions, one should rather acknowledge their fears, sadness and despair. Most of all, let them understand that you are taking their concerns seriously. Providing reassurance without dismissing their problem, is essential.”
Dr Ian Westmore psychiatrist from Bloemfontein: "Suicide is the most serious complication of a disease that, despite the increase in knowledge regarding depression, still remains under-diagnosed and under-treated. “
In adolescents, depression often presents differently to the same condition in adults. Whereas adults complain of feeling "down and depressed", adolescents will often be seen to be having a more irritable mood. There are also behavioural changes that occur such as withdrawal from friends and school life, a drop in school performance and often substance experimentation and abuse occur. Teenagers are frequently reticent about sharing aspects of their personal life and therefore one should specifically ask about suicidal thoughts and plans if depression is suspected.”
1 Tell the truth. It is important to be honest
They don’t need to hear every single detail but don’t pretend it was an accident then we are teaching them to distrust us. If you are finding it hard to say, think what you would say to a trusted friend. That would probably be appropriate for a child.
2 Expect and allow for different reactions and feelings.
These feelings will be influenced by many factors, age, personality and the nature of the relationship the child shared with the deceased. They may be angry, frustrated, feel guilt, confusion, shock sadness sham fear and embarrassment. Accepting their emotions helps them feel safe. Help them find a safe way of exploring and displaying pain and anger, let them punch a pillow, talk more and reassure them that is was not their fault.
3 Talk openly about suicide
South African society continues to stigmatise suicide, However it is believed often to be a desperate attempt to be out of what he or she finds is unbearable pain. They are so distressed that they can see death as their only way out. It makes people unsure of what to say, in a home environment, a school, a youth group, even a church. They need trusted adults to answer their questions.
4 Hold a memorial service
No matter how painful the persons death may have been, it is important to give the child the opportunity to say goodbye and to honour the their life. The old belief that memorialising because it glorifies suicide is not true. Not remembering their time in a meaningful way reinforces in a child’s eyes that their life was not important.
5 Talk about and remember who died
Don’t be afraid to talk about and remember the person who died. Bringing up the person’ name allows them to bring up thoughts and questions they may still have, it reminds them it is not “taboo” to talk about them. Sharing photos, poems, memories can also help children with their grief.
6 Share information about brain disease, chemical imbalance and depression
If the child is old enough, explain that there is a type of imbalance and their thoughts become confused. In younger children it can be explained by saying it is a type of 'sickness'
7 Be prepared for fears
After a suicide they will have many fears, they may be scared other will die the same way and leave them, They may believe they are 'fated' to die by suicide as well, They may be afraid to be alone or to go to sleep.
8 Inform the child's teacher about the death
Not all children will find it difficult going back to school, some may find refuge in school work. Others may have trouble concentrating, keeping up with homework, sometime this may occur for months after the death. You may want to work with the teacher in setting smaller goals than usual.
9 Provide outlets for grieving
Play is the natural medium for children, very young children will often use play to enact the struggles in their lives. An angry child may not say he is angry with will choose to pound a doll or hit a punch bag. A sad child may draw pictures representing their feelings. Notice the worlds they create, the roles they take on and the feelings that come up in their play.
10 Respect different grieving styles
Some kids want to talk about the death, other want to be left alone. Younger children may be more clingy, teens may spend more time on their own, or with friends. Recognising and respecting that each person grieves in their own way is essential to the healing process.
Finally having fun or laughing is not disrespectful to the person who died. It is also an important part of the grief too.
Most importantly, how, where and when do you get help?