Two days after Robin Williams took his life, my 11-year-old came traipsing into the kitchen at about 4 in the afternoon, heavy-lidded under disheveled hair. She sat down at the table where I was working, propping her head up with her hand, and bellowed, "Mom, Dean said my hair looks like I didn't brush it."
Before I go any further, let me preface by explaining "Dean."
"Dean" is a friend of my daughter. He's outspoken, reads voraciously and, most of the time, rubs her the wrong way with the things he says. I encourage the friendship because their towering personalities challenge one another. I hear a lot about what Dean said.
"Did you brush your hair?" I returned, looking up at her.
"This morning," she admitted.
"Maybe you could comb it again?"
Silence. Followed then by, "Mom, Dean said Mrs. Doubtfire killed himself with a belt."
Taken back, I stared at her for a second. The comment momentarily rattled me as I tried to filter it and decide how I wanted to comment in an age-appropriate way. She continued, matter-of-factly, "Dean said he was depressed because he wasn't making enough money. How could somebody so funny get so sad?"
Suicide is a very difficult subject to discuss with children. Finding the right words can be a struggle. Psychologist Polly Dunn suggests several useful tips in your conversations with your child(ren) about suicide, depression or other topics of such magnitude:
LET THE CHILD LEAD >> Don't presume you know what your child is feeling. You may need to guide their questions and help them to define their emotions. For example, "It sounds like you are confused. When I get confused things can seem mixed-up."
CONSIDER THEIR AGE >> Always filter details according to your child's age. Death, depression and suicide are abstract concepts for young children. Target where your child is emotionally and developmentally when deciding on an explanation. Suicide Voices of Education has one I found helpful: "Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person's brain gets sick. The sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a person's thoughts get all jumbled, so sometimes they can't think clearly. Some people can't think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don't understand that they don't have to feel that way, and can get help."
BE THERE >> When speaking to your child about intense topics such as suicide, use direct eye contact and affirming affection, like leaning toward them to show you are actively listening. Refrain from criticizing remarks of their responses, regardless of how off the wall they may seem at the time. Be patient and attentive to their feelings and words.
JUST ANSWER THEIR QUESTIONS >> Dunn recommends, "It is best to just answer with filtered facts, once again considering the child's age and how they handle their emotions. Be open and honest."
REFRAIN FROM BLARING THE NEWS >> In the instance of celebrities similar to Robin Williams, as the details surface, the media tends to sensationalize particulars, often adding comments and images that may be inappropriate for young children.
REALIZE THAT IT'S OK TO SAY, "I DON'T KNOW" >> Be honest if you don't have the answers to a child's questions. Hiding things will only do more harm than good in the long run. Your goal is to show your child that you are a person she can always talk to and trust.
READ OR CREATE A BOOK TO TALK ABOUT THE ISSUE >> There are numerous beautifully illustrated books that gently address difficult topics, such as suicide, death and depression. Read them with your child while guiding their questions and responses. Two wonderful suggestions include "After a Suicide: An Activity Book for Grieving Kids" by The Dougy Center and "A Terrible Thing Happened" by Margaret M. Holmes.
FINALLY, NEVER IGNORE YOUR CHILD'S QUESTIONS OR GIVE SUPERFICIAL AND FLIPPANT RESPONSES >> Use the time to explain the issue thoroughly. Death, dying and grieving bring up fear and anxiety for many children and adults. Children are very much in the now, tend to hold onto preconceived notions and are prone to ask poignant questions. As a parent, you want to be the one who talks to them about tough topics first. Wouldn't you rather have your child hear an appropriate and personal explanation from you, rather than from a neighbor or friend who means well but doesn't have truthful answers?