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How to protect your children from sad news about teen suicide: Don't

April 26, 2011 at 9:17 AM ET

The mothers of two 14-year-old girls who killed themselves in a suicide pact spoke to TODAY's Matt Lauer about their heartbreak today, saying their daughters had been victims of cyberbullying and suffered from depression -- but they never expected anything this horrible. "I tried to teach her to see past tomorrow," said Tricia Behnke, mother of Paige. Both families say they hope to raise awareness about suicide prevention -- which has got to be one of the hardest things to talk about, especially with a young teen.  Dr. Michele Borba, a psychologist and parenting expert, says the important thing is to start the conversation. 

By Michele Borba, TODAY contributor

The story of 14-year-old girls who hanged themselves in a suicide pact is tragic beyond belief. Our hearts hurt for these young girls’ families. Though we want to protect our own children from such horrific news, please don’t.

Our children need to know what to do if they hear or suspect a peer is depressed, bullied or even talking about ending their life.

The sad truth is that bullying, depression and suicide affect our tweens and teens. Though childhood or teen suicide is rare, incidents of youth taking their lives due to bullying have been in the news recently. “Bullycide” is now the term for youth who have committed suicide because they were bullied. We also know that most of the time before a teen commits suicide or homicide they do tell someone what they are planning -- and usually the person they tell is a peer. Those are just a few reasons why we must talk to our children about these tough and painful subjects.

Related story: Teen suicides' moms: 'Tell your children you love them' 

Here are a few points to help you have this important and tough chat with your teen:

1. Review the facts first. Chances are the teen suicide pact story will be discussed at school or amongst your child’s peers, so review the story before you talk. More often than not, the stories your child hears won’t be accurate and can fuel anxiety. That’s why you need to clarify the real facts. 

2. Find the right time. Plan to talk with your teen about suicide and depression. Just make sure it’s a relaxed, uninterrupted time. Ideally you want to have this chat during a part of the day when your child is most receptive to talking.

3. Begin with a simple question or direct statement. A few ways to start the dialogue: “Have you heard the sad news about the girls who killed themselves?” or “What are your friends saying?” or “Let’s talk about what you just saw on the news.” Listen to your teen and follow his or her lead.  

4. Be honest and direct, but careful. Give the details your child needs to know. Withhold facts or details that are not in your child’s best interests. Be prepared for lots of questions -- or none at all. Clear up any misunderstandings about suicide, depression or death that your child may have. If you don’t have an answer, just admit you don’t know.

5. Describe depression. “Yes, it’s a sad story, but I want to talk to you about suicide and depression.” Your talking points might include stressing that depression is not a phase, nor something kids can shrug off by themselves. Depression is a serious disease that needs a medical doctor. To help your child see the difference between normal sadness and depression, apply the word “too” to your talk: The sadnessis too deep. The depression lasts too long or happens too often. It interferes with too many other areas of your life such as your home, school, friends. The best news is, when diagnosed early and properly treated, kids almost always feel better. Tell your child: If you ever feel so sad or scared or helpless, please come and tell me so we can work together to make things right.

6. Be prepared to be unprepared. There is no way of predicting how your teen will respond to such a tough subject. The key is to answer any or all questions as they emerge. Let your teen know you are always available to listen or help.    

7. Talk about bullying. Emphasize that you recognize bullying is a growing and serious problem. Ask how often bullying is happening at school, what the school’s bullying policy is and how safe your child and her friends feel. Use the example from this tragic story to stress that bullying is painful and that intentionally causing another child pain is never acceptable.

8. Teach “Tattling” vs “Reporting.” When it comes to preventing tragedies, kids may well be the best metal detectors: the majority of adolescents who commit homicide or suicide share their intentions with a peer. Impress on your teen the importance of telling an adult “legitimate concerns” with the guarantee that their report will be taken seriously. Telling an adult that someone is hurt or could get in trouble is not the same as tattling: It’s acting responsibly. Explain that reporting is not to get a friend in trouble but to help them stay out of trouble or harm.

9. Discuss “safety nets.” Identify adults your child feels safe with, other people they can talk to when issues arise. Stress that people are always available to help your children or their friends with any kind of trouble. Mention the 24-hour confidential USA National Suicide hotline: 800-784-2433 or 800-273-8255, with trained people who can listen and help kids any hour of any day. Above all, emphasize: “No problem is so great that it can’t be solved.”

Dr. Michele Borba is a TODAY contributor and author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutinos: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries." Follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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