Nicholas J. Westers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health in Dallas, TX and an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says these are important steps to take when starting a conversation about suicide (particularly if the child is under 12 years old):
Ask questions: First, gauge their level of knowledge by asking them what they think death or suicide is. That'll help you better understand how little or much grasp they already have on the topic.
Listen carefully: This is where all those active listening tips you know come in handy. Don't interrupt them, be neutral and understanding, watch their body language, and reflect your children's words to show them you're paying attention. Ask follow up questions if you need clarification, but only when the child is done talking.
Respond with more information: Listening will enable you to tailor the conversation to your child's developmental level and offer information in terms they can better understand — more on how to better target this conversation to your child's age is ahead, but these three rules apply no matter their age:
- Avoid over-explaining: Keep it simple by offering only the necessary details.
- Avoid euphemisms like they "passed away" or "went to sleep:" These vague terms can be confusing for children particularly if they can be taken literally, i.e. saying "they went to sleep" could lead to a believe that going to sleep at night will result in being separated from family for an indefinite period of time.
- Reassure your child: Because children often feel responsible for what happens in the world around them, it's important they understand that they are not at fault for someone else's behavior. They might also need to hear that you're OK as talking about death can often lead to fear.
Let them talk about their feelings: Go back to that active listening stage again and let them tell you how this conversation has made them feel.