How do I talk to my child about suicide?

This week kicks off National Suicide Prevention Week.

As parents and caregivers, talking about suicide to your children can feel daunting or uncomfortable. There are many myths and incorrect information about mental health and suicide and leaving it up to our children to discover it for themselves is a disservice to them, possibly life threatening. Parents-do not be afraid of talking to your child about suicide. Bringing it up does not make it more likely to happen, it actually has the opposite effect. This could also bond the parent child relationship, creating more honesty and closeness which builds trust. This trust is important if your child is ever to struggle with suicidal ideation or other mental health issues. Even if suicide does not happen in your family, chances are, someone the child knows, or has heard of will experience it. Below are some suggestions of how to engage your child at different ages with this difficult subject of suicide.

Preschool-Kindergarten Age

If a child this young asks about suicide, it is best to stick to the basics. Remember where they are at cognitively, and do not push away their questions. Show you are a safe place for them to take their questions, even if they do not fully understand what they are asking. You can say something simple, such as, “Joe had a bad disease and he died. It is really sad.” They may leave it at that and have no follow up questions. If they do, continue to keep your answers simple.

7-10 Years Old

Again, it is important to keep answers to questions about suicide simple. Focus on the sadness of the death and that a disease is what contributed to the death. Providing short, but true answers is important with this age group. Allow the child to lead the conversation, answering without giving more than what they asked. For example, “Joe had an illness for many years called depression. Sadly, he died from this illness, I wish he had been able to get more help.”

Preteens:  11-14 Years Old

Talking to pre-teens about suicidality warning signs is so important. It is helpful to be more concrete, as their developing brains are causing a lot of unknowns to take center stage, as well as dealing with complicated emotions. Understanding emotional awareness and helping teach your pre-teens about it is helpful. Teens Health is a good resource to start with.

One of the best ways to start is to ask what they have heard about the person and suicide. Start the conversation with where they are, gathering information so you can be on similar ground. This is also an opportunity to educate them on any information that is incorrect. At this age, you could also ask your child if they have thought about suicide or if their friends have. As previously mentioned, this does not put the idea in their head, but helps you understand where they are. Be clear and forthright in your questions and answers, letting them know you are not afraid of their questions, thoughts, and emotions.

High School Age

If you have not had a conversation with your child about suicide prior to High School, it is not a matter of if you have the conversation, but when. Regardless of whether there has been a death, at some point an important person in their life, whether that’s a family member, friend, or person they admire, will have some sort of mental health issue and potentially die by suicide. They too will likely experience some sort of mental health issue during this time. The conversation with your high schooler can mirror one you would have with an adult, as teenagers often want to be treated as such. If they struggle with some mental health issues, reassure them that this is a normal part of life, and that help and support is possible, even sharing your own experiences. Teens often feel alone in their struggle, that no one understands and that it will “always be this way,” or it will “never get better.” Sharing honestly about personal mental health struggles shows teens that they are not alone, and that it will get better.

College Age

Check in with your young adult about the stressors they are currently under. Mental health issues can be exacerbated with a stressful environment. Do not accept an answer of “I’m fine,” but rather gently ask for more information from your young adult child so you can understand where they are. Listen to them, and depending on their answer, provide them the resources they may need to get help and support. Again, open dialogue without fear or judgment of emotions and questions is key.

If there is anything to learn from this information, it is the importance of cultivating a relationship with children that is devoid of judgment and fear, so they can ask the questions they want, knowing you will be honest with them. Conversations about mental health and suicide provides accurate information that children do not have to try to find themselves. If you are still not sure about how to have this conversation or do not have enough information, please reach out to a mental health professional to educate you and your children about mental health and suicide. More knowledge means less mystery, and the hope that suicide rates will lessen. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another great resource to learn more about suicide and various topics with it. You can visit the website by clicking this link, or calling 1-800-273-8255.

-Callie Gross, LMFTA