How To Talk With Your Child About Suicide
Suicide among young people is the second-leading cause of death. Talking with your child about suicide can help them understand depression and other mental illnesses as diseases, give words to their feelings, and be able to recognize warning signs in their friends and classmates. If your child doesn’t personally experience suicidal ideation, it’s likely that someone they know will. Giving your kid the tools to have these conversations with their peers and know when to seek assistance can help save a friend’s life — or even their own.
The way you talk about suicide will probably look a little different depending on your child’s age. Here are a few suggestions from leading organizations to assist you with these difficult conversations.
Simple is Best for Young Children
If a child under eight years old isn’t directly affected by suicide, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents don’t talk about tragedies. However, if your young child knows someone who died by suicide or asks about it, it’s best to keep your conversation simple and not go into detail.
Give straightforward, honest answers, saying things like, “This person died and it’s really sad. They had a bad disease.”
Tweens Have a Basic Understanding
As kids get older, they can begin to understand the concept of suicide. Start the conversation with questions like, “What have you heard about suicide? What do you think about it?” It can be frightening to talk about death, so be extra patient and listen intently.
As you explain mental illness, talk about it the same way you would talk about a physical illness — without judgment or blame. It’s best to say “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide,” too, because using the word “commit” can imply a moral failing.
Teens Need a Safe Space to Talk
Teenagers may be more familiar with the concept of suicide than kids and tweens, but it should still be discussed in a sensitive manner. Because it’s such a serious topic, it can be easy to overreact. However, that can shut down the conversation and cause your teen to feel apprehensive. But you don’t want to underreact, either. Trust your instincts on the right tone to take and assure your child that it’s safe for them to express what they’re feeling about the topic.
A two-sided conversation is infinitely better than a lecture. Instead of saying something like “Suicide is bad,” you can ask open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling right now? Tell me about a time when you’ve heard that someone at your school was depressed or suicidal.”
Young people of all ages can struggle with knowing how to support their peers who might be depressed or experiencing suicidal ideation. Let them know that they should tell an adult if they think a friend is having these thoughts — or if they need support themselves. It’s a great idea to give them a list of trusted people they can talk to and resources available to them like the Crisis Help Line, The Trevor Project, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Make sure your child knows there’s no shame in getting help for depression or suicidal thoughts. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength to reach out for support.