When parents commit suicide, children often believe that their parents did not love them. They may also think that if they had been better children and made their parents happy, the parents would not have committed suicide. This article provides guidelines for parents and other adults about what to do for children when a parent commits suicide. Suicide affects the entire family and is difficult to deal with. This article provides information that can be helpful to children, teens, and adults.
When parents commit suicide, children often believe that the parents did not love them. They reason that, if the parents had loved them, they would not have done it. For the children left behind, parents’ suicide is abandonment: Their parents did not care enough about them not to kill themselves.
Feeling unloved and abandoned, children can then begin to believe that they are not worthy of love and are bad children. They may move on to believing that they are unworthy of the respect of others. They often interpret the behaviors of others as evidence that they are bad and unworthy.
Some children may think that if they had been better children, their parent would not have committed suicide. They believe they did not try hard enough to make their parents happy. They may even believe that their behaviors caused their parent to be unhappy. Their behaviors, therefore, led directly to parents’ suicides.
Children’s Behaviors After Parental Suicide
Children are adaptable. When they believe they are bad and unloved, many still do well in school, engage in activities they enjoy, and get along with others. They may have a good appetite and sleep well. If they had been helpful children before the suicide, they may continue to be helpful afterward.
Children with few apparent signs of distress, however, may develop a long-term mild depression called dysthymia. These children often do not show their underlying distress except in indirect ways, such as seeming sad and quiet at times, working extra hard at pleasing others, and having occasion outbursts of temper.
Some children have clear reactions to parents’ suicides. They may become angry and destructive and hurt others physically or through taunting and teasing. They may hurt animals, or destroy the property of others. They may harm themselves through reckless behavior, or through cutting. Some may become preoccupied with sex or violence. Some older children may try drugs and alcohol. In short, children may become aggressive toward others, toward personal property, and toward animals or toward themselves.
Sometimes children with these difficult, aggressive behaviors have other traumas in their lives besides parental suicide. Children with these behaviors can still do well with professional help that will require the cooperation of the surviving parents and other family members.
Some children are neither self-destructive or destructive toward others, and they also do not develop an underlying mild depression. These children understand that their parents were so sad and full of pain that they did something to end the pain. They understand that when the parents killed themselves, they were not able to think of the children and their love for them. They only thought about ending the pain. They did not think about anything else but ending the pain.
These children also understand that if the parents had been able to think about them and not the pain, the parents did love them. The pain was so powerful that the parents could not think about their love their children. Parents who commit suicide also do not think about other hardships their suicides cause, such as the sadness of the other parents or the hard times the families have after the suicide. Parents who commit suicide want their children to feel loved. They want their children to be happy and have good lives.
Helpful Adult Behaviors
Children are fortunate when they understand that their parents were too sad to think about how they loved them. These children have had others to help them to cope. Like other children, they often experience hurt and rejection and have fears that their parents did not love them and that they are bad children. These children were the lucky ones who had parents or other adults in their lives who knew what to do to help them through their initial fears about beliefs about the meanings of parents’ suicides.
Adults who are helpful to children do not act as if the children will get over the suicide after a while. They know that when children have experienced traumas, such as suicide, they learn to cope with and adapt through dealing directly with the effects of trauma.
Helpful adults are not dismissive of the children’s distress. They also are not preoccupied, nor do they hover over the children, trying to “fix” the children in ways they think children need to be fixed. In short, helpful adults are not dismissive of children’s responses. They are not preoccupied with children’s responses. These adults are sensitively responsive. They sought the information they needed to be of help to children.
These adults are not only sensitively responsive to the children, but they were emotionally available. They communicated much of their emotional availability and sensitivity not through words but through how they acted around their children. Children learn to cope by watching what adults do, and then they do what adults do.
Talking to Children
Emotionally available adults listen to children when children want to talk. If the children want to talk about the suicide, they listen carefully. They let children do almost all of the talking and only say enough to acknowledge that they heard what the children were saying. These are some sample brief responses: “Uhuh,” “Yes,” “I know what you mean,” “This is a hard time,” and “How you feel is important to me.”
When and if the children are ready to hear more than this from adults, then adults can say the following: “Some kids think their parents don’t love them when they commit suicide.” They then wait. Many children will respond immediately with something like, “I think that” and more. If the children don’t say anything, then adults can say, “Do you feel this way?” Whatever the children say or do not say, accept that. Do not push the children to say what you think they ought to say. Children need to feel safe. They often need time to figure out if they are safe with you.
Adults may have many conversations with children about the suicide. There is no quick fix. The grief, loss, and other emotions come and go. Coping with and adapting to parental suicide is a long-term process. Children may go for months and years without much mention of the suicide, but something will trigger their desire to talk about it once again. An event in their lives can be the trigger, such as the loss of a friend, a move to a new home, or approaching puberty.
Children may need to hear many times that their parents were too sad to think about anything else but ending their emotional pain. The parents loved their children but they were too sad to think about that. Adults can also say when the time is right that is it natural to feel hurt and loss and anger and as if no one loves you. At the same time, parents who commit suicide were not in their right minds. If they had been, they would have thought about consequences and would not have killed themselves.
When Children Don’t Talk
Some children do not talk about their parents’ suicide. In these instances, adults can open the conversation by saying, “Some kids think their parents don’t love them when they commit suicide. Do you think that?” There are some excellent books on parental suicide and death that adults can read with children. Any child of a parent who committed suicide may benefit from reading about parental suicide and having opportunities to talk about what they have read.
Over time, adults will have many conversations with children about the parents’ deaths. They may find that they deal with children’s sense of badness. They can listen for signs that the children think they are bad. They can ask, “Some kids think that they are bad because their parents committed suicide. Do you think you are bad?” Then, listen and respond with very few words and with love.
Suicide affects the entire family. Children and adults often benefit from professional help. This help is usually called psychoeducation. Psychoeducation has three parts. Professionals usually offer these parts in a sequence, but they give lots of space for family members to move back and forth across the parts. In other words, when professional provide education about the suicide, family members might once again want to talk about their responses to suicide. Psychoeducation is flexible and allows family members to express their emotions at any time.
The first part of psychoeducation is time for children, teens, and adults to talk about their grief and loss and any other responses they have to the suicide. Anger is common. Shock is, too. During this part of psychoeducation, what the suicide means to each member of the family is the focus.
The second part is education. When each family member is ready, professionals then talk to families about suicide—what often goes on in the minds of the persons who commit suicide and common reactions family members have to suicide.
The third part is also education and involves things children, teens, and adults can do to cope with suicide. The professionals explain how other families have coped successfully. This often includes working with surviving parents and other adults with ways they can cope, such as keeping a journal, vigorous exercise, meditation, yoga, doing activities they enjoy such as walks in the woods, listening to music, doing volunteer work, and anything else they enjoy.
Professionals also work with adults on ways to help children through their grief, loss, and other reactions to the suicide. Much of what parents can do is discussed earlier in this article.
Professionals also show children ways to cope, which can include yoga, meditation, and other activities when children are ready.
Professionals may recommend grief groups. They may recommend separate grief groups for children, for teens, and for adults. They sometimes recommend family grief groups. These groups meet several times and can be helpful when they show participants that they are not alone, that others have had similar experience, and that the other members seem like fine people who did not cause the suicide. Participants also learn coping methods from other participants.
In some cases, family members want to do longer-term therapy. They find that their grief and loss are prolonged and realize that they have other traumas in addition to the suicide that they want to deal with so the traumas don’t bother them so much.
Suicide is a trauma. When children and other family members have other traumas in their lives, the suicide can revive memories of these other traumas. Responses to suicide can become complex and long-term if there are other traumas. So, people in these situations often benefit from therapy. For therapy to work, it must be a free choice.
More About Guidance for Children
With children, parents can gently guide children into therapy. Often children like therapy and want to talk about what’s on their minds. Some children do not want to go to therapy and so adults have to accept this. Any child whose parent has committed suicide requires sensitive, responsive care, and they also do well when they still have a predictable schedule and still have expectations that they follow rules. When they are unable to follow rules and do destructive things to themselves and others, then adults provide safety and security, while also trying to draw children out by asking them when was going on when they broke rules.
When adults assure children that the adults love them but they cannot allow rule breaking, this can help children. When adults understand the emotions behind the rule breaking, adults can suggest other ways for children to cope with their emotions besides being destructive. The Lemons or Lemonade Workbook, available free on the internet, has many suggestions about how children can cope with strong emotions.
Children often don’t know how to cope with strong emotions. They often break rules and are otherwise inappropriate. They need parents to show them what to do. Children often do what parents do, but they also require direct instruction. Practicing the behaviors helps a lot.
Suicide affects the entire family. Adults, teens, and children are affected. Surviving parents and other adult family members require the love, support, and understanding of others to get through their shock, grief, and, often, anger. They also have responsibilities to children. Surviving parents or other adults the children love and trust will be most helpful to children if they are immediately emotionally available to children and teens. They will be most helpful if they remain emotionally available over the long term.
Psychoeducation can be helpful to children, teens, and adults. In some cases, in addition to psychotherapy, therapy will be the choice that family members make.
Children do well when parents and other adults find the balance between emotional responsiveness and maintaining usual discipline and expectations, while cutting the children some slack when they are not able to behave as expected. In these cases, children do well when adults assure them that they are loved, but that they cannot behave as they are, but must do something that is not harmful when they are feeling bad. Challenging how children feel is not helpful, but accepting how they feel and helping them to express their feelings appropriately are helpful.
Gilgun, Jane F. Lemons or Lemonade? A Manual for Professional who Work with Children. http://www.scribd.com/...
Gilgun, Jane F. Lemons or Lemonade? A Manual for Professional who Work with Teens. http://www.scribd.com/...
Gilgun, Jane F. Neurobiology, Trauma, & Children Development. For Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/...
Gilgun, Jane F. Executive Function & Self-regulation in Children. For Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/...
Gilgun, Jane F. Neurobiology & Social Work.
About the Author
Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities USA. She has talked to family members over the years about the adversities that affect quality of life. See Professor Gilgun’s other articles, children’s stories, and books on scribd.com and for Kindle, iPad, Nook, & other e-readers.