Parents’ identity disrupted by their children’s suicidal behaviour

Diet and lifestyle 11. may 2023 4 min PhD Fellow Anette Juel Kynde Written by Kristian Sjøgren

New research shows that the parents of children with suicidal behaviour typically reconstruct and negotiate their identify in three stages. A researcher says that understanding these three stages can identify areas for helping the parents of children with suicidal behaviour.

A parent’s worst nightmare is their child thinking about or trying to end his or her own life. Unfortunately, relatively many parents experience this, but there is currently limited support for them.

A new study shows how a child’s suicidal behaviour affects parents’ perception of their identity. The study shows that parents typically go through three stages, each associated with different emotions.

The study also shows how parents could be supported and where society is not able to provide solutions for some people during the saddest period of their lives.

“The research was carried out in connection with a project to create a website that can support the parents of children with suicidal behaviour. When a child has thoughts of ending his or her life or attempts to do so, this affects the parents’ identity as parents, and many parents are also so burdened by this that they may develop depression, become ill or have suicidal thoughts themselves,” explains a researcher behind the study, Anette Juel Kynde, PhD Fellow, Psychiatric Research Unit, Psychiatry Region Zealand, Slagelse, Denmark.

The research has been published in Social Science & Medicine.

A child’s suicidal behaviour disrupts parents’ self-identity

Anette Juel Kynde interviewed 21 parents of children 11–25 years old who had either attempted to end their life or had suicidal behaviour.

The purpose of the study was to investigate how a child’s suicidal behaviour affects parental identity and how a parent experiencing this affects their external relationships.

Anette Juel Kynde says that her interviews with the parents primarily showed that all parents experience disrupted parental identity and that their understanding of themselves as parents measured against social norms took a blow.

“It is not surprising that all parents experience disrupted parental identity when their child has suicidal thoughts. But we also find that parents try to delay this realisation by trivialising what their child has done or is thinking. They may have said that teenagers commonly experience difficulties related to growing up , but at some point all parents realise that they could lose their child,” she says.

Parents of children with suicidal behaviour go through three stages

Anette Juel Kynde and colleagues identified three stages parents may experience once they acknowledge that they could lose their children to suicide.

  • The first stage is experiencing overwhelming grief at the possibility of losing their offspring to suicide and parents losing their identity as parents. However, the parents still believe that they can resolve the situation and help their child.
  • In the second stage, the parents no longer believe that they can help their child and change the situation and instead experience feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. These feelings and lack of belief in a positive outcome is often reinforced by various social and professional encounters. This can include the interaction with a healthcare system that does not want to or cannot help the parents, or the relationship with the child may make the situation look bleak. The negative influence can also come from the other parent if the parents feel that they are working against each other in trying to help their child.

“Parents are often at an impasse in the second stage, and our study showed that half the parents remained stuck in this stage, having lost faith that the situation could ever get better,” explains Anette Juel Kynde.

  • In the third stage, however, things start to brighten up again, with the parents again feeling that they can help their child get better because of interactions in their network. They may have met a special healthcare professional who has helped them, may have spoken to other parents who have been in the same situation or their child may tell them that what they are doing actually helps.

Parents need self-belief

Anette Juel Kynde says that the study provides insight into how parents can be helped through these stages so that they can arrive at a feeling that they have the ability to help their child rather than being stuck at the impasse stage.

She says that the parents’ belief that they can help their child is probably the most important thing in the difficult situation the child is in.

That is why also getting help to these parents is so important.

“We need to give parents faith that both they and the healthcare system can help their child. This means that we must help parents to use their relationships or healthcare professionals to shift their perspectives. However, this help must be systematised to help parents act in this very difficult situation resulting from their child’s suicidal behaviour,” says Anette Juel Kynde.

Transitioning to stage three requires help

Denmark has had many good services for children and young people with suicidal behaviour for many years, but services for their parents have lagged behind.

This is also the idea behind the end result of Anette Juel Kynde’s research: a website for the parents of children with suicidal behaviour.

The website provides knowledge and information on what to do as a parent of a child with suicidal behaviour. This knowledge is conveyed through videos with parents, a chatbot and facts. For example, some parents say that they have involved the extended family, such as grandparents, in the situation.

“It is unbearable when, as a parent, you feel that you cannot help your child who wants to end his or her life. This can even make parents wish that their child did not exist or experience suicidal thoughts themselves. In this situation, helping parents to enter the third stage is important because this is where they regain personal agency and can better help their child through the difficult situation. If we can help parents to enter this third stage through the website or through the healthcare system, we may also help them to obtain a sense of pride that they have overcome a difficult period in their lives and convince them that they are indeed the best parents of their children,” concludes Anette Juel Kynde.

Re-constructing parental identity after parents face their offspring’s suicidal behaviour: an interview study” has been published in Social Science & Medicine. TrygFonden supported the project. In 2019, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a PhD fellowship to Anette Juel Kynde for the project Co-designing Web-based Psychoeducational Resources for Relatives of People with Suicidal Behaviour.

Approximately, 11,000 self-harm episodes occur on a yearly basis in Denmark. Of these, the majority are among youth below the age of 25 years. The Sui...

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