Click here to go the Sample Script (you will stay on this page)
A school counselor in my Arizona workshop, The Emotionally Naked Truth About Student Suicide, told me she had a student in the office who shared her thoughts of suicide and when she called the parent they yelled at her and then forbade the child to speak to her.
The parents were ashamed and outraged with their child for talking about such things with a counselor.
You might default to thinking that the parents are terrible people and while they might be, it is usually a cultural issue or simply ignorance regarding mental health and suicide.
So let’s look at how we might approach avoiding such clashes by knowing and understanding your population and perhaps predicting your parents’ reactions beforehand so you have a strategic approach to providing support for the child.
So let’s assume these parents are consumed with grades and their child getting into an Ivy League school. That Ivy League school is their academy award for fine parenting and they are sure this suicide incident is a roadblock to that shining success. They are also likely seeing this as an insult to their parenting talent as well as to their family. In some ethnic cultures, suicide and suicidal thoughts are shameful and met with punitive action, shaming, and shunning putting that child at greater risk.
The bolded parts are where we are wording it in a way a parent focused on college and grades would likely respond and address their fears. For now, you merely have to get them on board by speaking their language and what is important to them. So while no conversation is this linear, you can see how we weave in academic success and address concerns they might have. It also makes the assessment sound mandatory.
“Hi, Mrs. Bedin. I am Mary Hambright from Valley High School where your daughter Astrid attends. Something has come up at school and I’m calling you so we can work together to ensure your child’s continued and future success. Astrid came to me today because she has been very frightened by thoughts of suicide.
These mental health episodes are not uncommon and our school is working to support Astrid. We know that emotionally healthy children are better achievers and can maintain a long-term strategy for the tough academic demands ahead when they get the support they need.
I am so proud of Astrid for coming forward today. It is a sign of great courage and reflects how well you raised her. Not all students are brave enough to share such vulnerability.
Since we all want the best future for Astrid I have gone ahead and scheduled an assessment with a medical professional because that is our protocol to keeping students healthy and safe. The date is tomorrow at 9 am and can be done by phone. Once this is completed, we can talk. Thank you for following through on this important step so we can figure out the next steps.
I want to assure you that none of this will go on any transcripts or records about the student to colleges or anything like that. These cases are kept very discreet and only myself and one other counselor will be aware of this. We are bound by law to keep this confidential and your support is paramount for the best results. Emotionally healthy children are more prepared to achieve.“
Prior to calling a parent, ask the student about their family
Make note of any cultural norms and specific beliefs. You can even be direct and ask the child how the family might react by telling the student you are asking so that you know the best approach to take in order to get the help and support they deserve.
First, put yourself in the parent’s shoes and think about how they might react based on what you know.
Most parents are likely to feel embarrassed like it’s a personal insult to their parenting. They might think:
“My child has everything, nice clothing and a home, a loving family, and plenty to eat. How could she do this to us after all we’ve done for her?”
Some parents are likely to freak out and want to camp out beside their child at night to keep them safe.
The more upfront information you have the better you can think about what strategy you need to take.
Next, consider asking yourself these questions
Given what you know, you have to put this in terms they will react more positively to. And while this isn’t always going to work and you will have parents who go off and have no idea how serious the situation really is, some pre-planning can help de-escalate a situation before it happens.
1. Do these parents have some historical trauma related to healthcare systems, the government, or the school system?
For example, Native American youth were routinely taken from their families, forced into boarding schools, and punished if they spoke their native language or observed traditional native American customs, causing serious trauma for generations. That mistrust is likely going to bleed into this relationship.
2. Is the child from a first-generation immigrant family?
If so, the kids might speak English but not so much of their native language while their parents know little English. That would be a language and cultural barrier to talking about things like feelings or mental health.
3. Are they very religious?
In this case, they may rely heavily on the child praying their way out of it. In this case, maybe the child asks the family to pray for the strength to figure the way through this as a family. So you’d need to respect and weave in some faith messages that allow you to work with the child to find the strength and coping skills to manage adverse events. It’s a growth story in deepening faith. because we do know that faith is a strong protective factor for preventing suicide and this message needs to be emphasized to the parent.
4. Are they parents who rely on traditional punitive parenting because it was how they were raised?
This is a tough one and doesn’t rely on giving advice but rather sharing with the parents a strategy that worked well for another family. That would need to come later in the conversation or a second one altogether. Empathic kids seem to require another approach. Patents rarely know that word so “deep feelers” is a good description and you can tie that to something positive. “We know that deep feelers like Josh respond well to [this strategy]. It’s that trait that makes him such a talented writer.” Stress that it’s a genetic trait and if they have more than one child, how different are they in terms of personality?
5. In the case of an LGBTQ kid, is the family rejecting their gender identity?
If the parents don’t know, the student can be afraid that you might “out” them to parents who will reject them in which case you can assure them that you don’t have to reveal that to their parents. But the parents might know about it and their reaction might have been rejection trying to shame the child to “fall in line with the right way to live” which is probably at the core of what is driving the attempt. In this case, you can say:
“I understand your disagreement with your child’s gender identity, but when a child is struggling with thoughts of suicide, we need to put aside those disagreements and focus on wellness. Because if a student is in a place so dark that they are struggling with suicide, something is gravely wrong with this adolescent and we need all hands on deck to stabilize the situation and keep the child safe from suicide. I am here to support that effort. Our common goal would be that your child find a place of wellness and thrive. And to avoid suicide. Can we agree on that?”
6. What does “social worker” means to this audience?
Has a “social worker” meant a person who takes their kids away? Perhaps these were the only social workers they’d known–bad guys who tore their family apart.
If you have families who’ve been culturally traumatized, then some education at the beginning of the school year and again when you call, is necessary, starting with something like, “You might think of a social worker as someone who takes kids away but I’m the social worker that will help your child achieve emotional wellness.”
Educate ahead of time
- Jessica chock Goldman said in an interview for the book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk that she brings in the freshman and starts normalizing conversations on mental health right from the beginning. Perhaps you can call such an event “Ensuring Your Student’s Success.”
- To make sure you get the audience, provide babysitting support or a virtual session to reach parents who work at odd hours.
- Send regular email tips about emotional wellness in school newsletters.
- Dr. Chock-Goldman also tells the parents they are likely to get calls from her at some point on emotional health and will get some regular communication on this.
- She also announces any specific groups she has which inlcude–affinity groups for parents of Korean American students, for example. She makes the effort to bring in clinicians that also match the race of the audience they serve in those groups when possible. That goes a long way in building trust.
- Jennifer Hamilton, a school psychologist from Nobles & Greenough has a parenting group for parents who have children struggling with mental health issues. And of course, these are privately held.
Reassure parents that this happens in loving families and let them know of support resources like NAMI Family Support Groups or NAMI Family to Family classes on living with someone who has a mental health condition. Patience is so important in this situation. Rely and lean on school policy when you need to so you are not the bad guy. Find some common ground where you can agree and consider that a victory. Sometimes that’s the best you can do.
If there is neglect or a home situation, you might have to enlist child protective services. And of course, that is the last resort.
If you have any scenarios, please share them.
Two versions of a game that facilitate connection and inclusion, a foundation of suicide prevention. Ideal for middle and high schools. (opens in a new window)