How Do I Help My Child Cope With a Friend's Overdose?

Now more than ever, it's critical to talk to your kids about depression and suicide. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, offers some tips for how to do that without causing more anxiety.

How do I help my child cope with a friend's overdose?
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-A Friend In Deed

My sixth grader had her first experience with a friend who tried to overdose and ended up hospitalized. How do I help my child understand and cope with the fallout from the situation, especially as she reconnects with the friend, who is currently in recovery?

—-A Friend In Deed

It's one thing to read the headlines, and another to live out the reality of the current youth mental health crisis. Although experts offer varying explanations for higher rates of anxiety and depression in teens, it's clear that our children will likely have some encounter with serious mental health issues sooner than we probably expect. And it's important to keep in mind that attempts at self-harm or suicide can be a result of many factors, including mental illness, but also bullying, discrimination, bereavement, chronic pain, and other issues. How we respond as parents can shore up our child's capacity to cope with this serious type of stress, and show openness to discuss mental health. Opening up discussion now may be critical for our child's mental health later.

Get the Details First

The prospect of a suicidal child places at the top of any parent's "worst fears" list, leaving us feeling unsure how to approach the topic if our own child seems okay. (Some fear that mentioning suicide plants suicidal thoughts, but we know from research that this is a myth.) Your question reminds us that even if our child appears to be doing well, they can still be touched by the reality of suicide. Although teens are supposed to start relying on us less in this phase, our response to a child exposed to a friend's suicide attempt can make a big impact.

Here are a few areas to explore with your child to better understand how their friend's overdose is affecting them:

  • How close is this friend?
  • What was your child's contact with this friend before, during, and after the overdose? How involved were they in the actual incident?
  • Did they know this friend was struggling, or did it blindside them?
  • Had they heard this friend make statements about wanting to die?

These are key questions because the answers can help gauge your child's sense of responsibility for the incident. Depending on the closeness of the relationship and their proximity to the time of the actual overdose, your child may carry guilt or anxiety that they should have rescued their friend or stopped the attempt.

Adults Needed

You can assure them their friend needs professional intervention that as a sixth grader, your child is not supposed to provide. It's useful to review with a child this age that distress this severe is not meant for other children of the same age to manage. Adults need to be involved. You can reassure your child that the hospital is the safest place for their friend and is where she will get the help that she needs. Your child can continue to be an available, caring friend without feeling like they have to "fix" or "save" her.

Strong Emotional Boundaries

When I have supported teens through navigating relationships with suicidal friends, I focus on a key component of their own mental health: strong emotional boundaries. Adolescents can be especially vulnerable to taking on others' pain and suffering as a way to be a "good friend." This phase of brain development also includes heightened emotions, so they are already feeling their feelings in technicolor. This combination can be a setup for becoming depressed when having close friends going through their own mental health struggles.

Outside of my therapy office, I have counseled my own middle-school daughter on the importance of enlisting adults if a friend's mood or anxiety starts to cause her own mood problems or anxiety. This is great practice for a lifetime of healthier relationships, as we adults probably know from times when we have tried too hard to fix problems that aren't ours. In fact, many adults continue to work on this!

The Power of Destigmatizing

No matter your child's level of involvement, this incident can open up crucial dialogue. It's the perfect opportunity to explore your child's mood, any worries they have about getting depressed, being bullied or other stressors, and what other experiences they have in their friend group with mental health issues. Even if your child responds to this line of questioning in reassuring ways, this type of conversation signals that you as their parent are comfortable talking about mental health. This sets up a greater likelihood they will come to you if they struggle in the future.

Watch and Follow-Up

If your child seems to move on to more trivial topics after your discussion, that's a fairly typical response. It shows that they received the support they needed to return to their more mundane concerns like who's dating whom. As the days go by, however, observe your child's mood and behavior. If you notice changes, like being more withdrawn than usual or significant increases or decreases in appetite or sleep, they may be experiencing their own mood struggle in response to the stress of their friend's overdose. Follow-up with questions about what they know about their friend's recovery, and how they are coping. It may be an opportune time to talk about signs when your child might benefit from therapy, now or in the future.

The Bottom Line

Youth suicide is understandably right up there at the top of the "do not want to deal with" list for most parents. I imagine it felt too early for your sixth grader to come to you with this connection to a suicide attempt, but it unfortunately aligns with the recent youth mental health statistics about depression, anxiety, and other stressors, like bullying. As much as we would love to wish it away, the more we can accept the possibility that even our early teens may be suffering to this extent, the more we can be part of the solution. By engaging in important discussions about mental health and how to be a "good" friend with strong emotional boundaries, we aid our child's coping and show them that we are a trustworthy source of support when they need it most.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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