DEAR HARRIETTE: I am sick about all of the news stories these days about people dying of drug overdoses or suicide. It's really horrible. What's worse is that I have not been able to shield my young children from it. Because everything pops up on TV at any time of day, not even just on the news, they have started asking questions. My kids are 7 and 10. I didn't think I would have to talk to them about somebody taking his own life or using heroin at this age. I don't feel ready for these conversations, so I was vague when they first asked, but I do think I need to respond. What should I say? -- Protective Mom, Syracuse, N.Y.
DEAR PROTECTIVE MOM: I believe that a parent's job is to teach children how to understand what is happening around them so that they can feel safe and protected and knowledgeable. I agree that it is not ideal for young children to have to hear about some of the horrors of our world, but when they happen, parents must be able to talk them through these tragedies.
I have talked to my 10-year-old about drug abuse for several years. It started when she witnessed someone using drugs and wanted to know what he was doing. When Phillip Seymour Hoffman died and it was all over the news, we had the talk about heroin and more about using a needle and syringe and how under most circumstances those tools are only used in a hospital. I told her to walk away if she ever encounters someone doing that in her presence. Were these conversations scary? Sure, but I remained matter-of-fact about them, explaining that drug use can easily lead to death, and that we choose life.
When it comes to suicide, an even more difficult topic, if you have to talk about it with young children, keep it in simple terms, namely that some people become so sad that they don't remember how valuable life is. If ever they feel very sad, their responsibility is to come to you right away to talk about it. As long as you know you are loved, it is easier to work through any sadness.
When your children face tragic stories, either through the news or your own family and friends, be sure to talk to them. For support in having this conversation, go to childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2011-4-25-talking-kids-about-suicide.