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How parents should talk to children about depression and its effects

Here’s a guide on how to deal and what to say to kids—from toddlers to young adult

Students have been under a lot of pressure due to stress on modular learning. Some even considered taking their own lives, with a handful of deaths that went viral this month. Now that everyone is almost glued to their gadget’s screen, there is a likely chance that children, even the young ones, have read about these disturbing incidents. 

Open discussion

But how does a parent discuss this with their children? This does provide an opportunityfor parents to engage in an important and meaningful conversation with their children about suicide. Most parents avoid this topic because they think that talking about suicide to their children might plant suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, resilience expert and family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa of told Manila Bulletin Lifestyle that it is safe to talk to children about  tragedies, because it gives suggestions to their brain on what they must do when faced with such. 

Dr. Deborah Gilboa

“Like if they smelled smoke, and thought there might be a fire, they had to go tell someone, we might be on fire. And that part is easier for children, because children have less of a stigma about asking for help than adults do.” Gilboa explains. “So just by thinking about suicide, it gives them warning sign that they need help.” 

It’s okay if you don’t know the answers

Another reason why parents hesitate to have a discussion with their children is because they’re worried that they don’t have the right answers to their children’s questions. But Gilboa, author of four parenting books, cleared that it’s not the parents’ job to have all the answers but, rather, their main job is to be always available to their children. “And when children want to know why this happens, we can say, to all ages, that depression is a lot like cancer. You do everything you can to treat the illness, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and we often don’t know why,” Gilboa says. “We don’t know anything about the treatment that they got, and it’s terribly sad that their illness took their life. But, a lot of people who have those thoughts don’t end up dying by suicide, especially if they reach out for help.” But if you want to start a conversation with your children yet you don’t know the right words to say, here is an age-by-age guide from Gilboa on how to talk about suicide.

Talk to their level

4 to 7 years old: Keep it simple to preschoolers 

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents not to talk about tragedies to their children under eight years old, unless they will hear about it. “And if they heard about scary topics, parents should be the first person to come to them, so that they know they are in a safe place,” stresses Gilboa.

When you talk to your preschoolers about suicide, keep it simple as you can. Gilboa suggests you could say this: “There’s a sickness that can make people think they should hurt themselves. And when people feel that way, they need help. And if you ever feel that way, you need to come to me and tell me right away so I can help you to feel better. Or I would just say, this is a sickness that people can have. It’s really rare in kids, but then just like I told you, it happens. If your brain tells you this thing, come get help right away, because you don’t need to feel that way.”

7 to 12 years old: Do a pretest to your elementary kids 

In elementary, teachers do a pretest like in their spelling class in order to evaluate students and help them decide what level of word list they should give. Gilboa recommends this strategy to parents who have school-age children.

As early as seven years old, they’re already exposed to the internet world, the first thing to do when talking to them is not to give them information but to ask what they are informed about. So, do a pre-test by asking them clear questions such as “Have you ever heard of this news? Have you seen this viral video? What do you think about it? What would you do in that situation?” Then, determine what they already know and what they need to learn once they stopped talking.

It’s your chance to give them the right and concrete information through following their lead. For children older than seven years old, Gilboa suggests using a gentle open question first, just like asking your children if they ever thought of wearing a blue shirt instead of green. That whatever their answer is, they won’t get into any trouble.

Gilboa used this sample question: “Have you ever heard about this thing where someone hurts themselves or tries to die on purpose because of how they’re feeling?” Then if the children replied yes, that’s the time to do follow-up questions, “What would you do if a friend of yours felt like that? What would you do if you felt like that?”

“So, by asking first an open-ended question, you’ll be able to start the conversation where they are,” explains Gilboa. “You’ll learn that it’s easier for parents to ask questions than to make a statement.”

“The safest age to discuss about this is ten. Because when we start introducing scary topics With 10-year-olds, they get stronger. If they stumble on scary topics, and have to wonder if they should ask their parents, then they get a little weaker,” she adds.

13 to 16 years old: Use ‘when’ and not ‘if’ to high schoolers

“It’s a must to talk about this topic to your teenagers. But you have to use what I call when and not if language. So instead of saying, ‘If you feel sad, alone, and hopeless,’ we say, ‘When you feel sad, alone, and hopeless, what would you do? Who will you go to?” shares Gilboa. The importance of using “when” is that they won’t feel like they failed, or they are going to get in trouble, or they are going to hurt you and make you angry when they say, “Yeah, I felt like that.” It’s a fact that most, if not every adolescents, will feel sad, alone, and hopeless at some point in their lives. And for teens who got the chance to talk about these things with parents, they will

remember that they did talk about it. They will remember that they were supposed to do something such as to look for solutions and solve the problems rather than feeling hopeless.

17 to 21 years old: Check-in with your college children

Parents should assume that their young adults have already talked to their classmates and friends about suicide. So Gilboa advises asking them this: “What would you do when you experience hardship? 

During this stage of their growth, stress rises, especially when they’re fed up in being told what to do, or that there’s somebody who is always in charge of them. “This could really be hard on them, so it’s very important that we have to make sure that children know when they’re having a hard time, and what are their particular warning signs,” Gilboa says.  

You can further check on them with the following questions: “How should I know when I should be worried about you? How should I know you’re not okay? What should make me ask you, how you are? Have you ever had anything that made you feel like giving up? Or made you feel like there were no solutions?” Whatever their reply is, point out that there are always solutions to problems. Emphasize that you’re one of their strategies and you’re one of the persons they can go to when they feel like giving up. 

Source: Manila Bulletin (

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