How to Talk to Your Children About Suicide, No Matter Their Age

Discussing suicide with your children may be difficult and emotional, but sadly, it's not a conversation you can avoid. According to a report by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates increased in all but one of the 50 states in the United States between 1999 and 2006. Avoiding the topic (when your child sees something on TV, for example) is not the most productive course of action. And if the connection to the person who took their own life is closer than that (a relative or friend), you'll want to tackle the topic quickly.

"Succumbing to the fear of upsetting and overloading children by discussing suicide with them leaves the topic to their imagination," says Philip B. Rosenthal, PhD, a psychotherapist in Milford, CT. "It can establish a 'thou shall not notice' or 'thou shall not comment' unspoken family rule that can be harmful for communication in the long run. It's important for children to see their role models dealing with death, in order to learn how to cope."

Before you sit down to discuss suicide with your children, there are a few things to keep in mind. It's important to reflect on your own believes and feelings surrounding mental health and suicide, so you can better express your thoughts to your kids and "help them try to digest the indigestible," says Rosenthal. It's also valuable to consider your child's relationship with the person who committed suicide and how your child handles painful, confusing, or difficult situations — the closer the tie, the deeper and more mixed the emotions will be, says Rosenthal. Additionally, you might want to consider bringing a professional into the conversation, particularly if your children commonly divert their energy and anger inwards (by shutting down) or outwards (by lashing out). Above all, their age will come into play. Ahead, find out exactly how.

What to Consider When Discussing Suicide With Children
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What to Consider When Discussing Suicide With Children

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:

  1. Avoid over-explaining: Keep it simple by offering only the necessary details.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

How to Talk to Children Under 3 About Suicide
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How to Talk to Children Under 3 About Suicide

Children 3 years and under don't generally understand death. If your child hasn't asked about suicide or had personal experience with it, Westers says there's no need to bring up the topic at this age. If you need to communicate that a close family member or friend has died by suicide, it's best to keep it short and simple.

"Discuss the death in the same terms you would discuss death by any physical illness," Westers says. "For example, say 'I have some sad news to share with you. Grandpa died, which means his body stopped working and can't be fixed, so we won't be able to see him again.' In the unlikely event that a child this age asks what suicide is, try to stick to explaining the concept of death first."

How to Talk to Children Ages 3 to 6 About Suicide
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How to Talk to Children Ages 3 to 6 About Suicide

Between the ages of 3 and 6, children are still unlikely to understand that death is final and irreversible, but they are more likely to ask questions if they hear about a subject they don't know well.

If a child asks about suicide, avoid details but keep it simple (you can say something like: "He hurt himself and his body stopped working") and stress that it's something that can't be fixed in this moment. Use positive language to assure them that you are comfortable talking about the topic, make them feel safe so they know they can come back to you to discuss other tragedies or get help.

How to Talk to Children Ages 7 to 12 About Suicide
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How to Talk to Children Ages 7 to 12 About Suicide

While Westers still says you should keep the conversation simple, he also suggests including the fact that the death was intentional. Say: "suicide is when someone dies by making their body stop working on purpose. It most often happens when their brain gets sick and that illness makes them feel really bad or sad inside. Their thoughts get mixed up to the point of forgetting or not knowing they can get help from doctors, so they make their body stop working to make the thoughts stop."

Westers says this might be also be a good time to discuss mental health and particularly depression and suicidal thoughts, stressing to children in this age group that suicide is never the only option and mentioning all other ways a person with suicidal thoughts can get help. Let your child know that there is always help available and make them comfortable knowing they can come to you as a start.

How to Talk to Children Over 13 About Suicide
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How to Talk to Children Over 13 About Suicide

According to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, the 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey found that 7 percent of children in grades 9 to 12 reported to have made at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months. That's why it's important to be proactive.

Westers suggests finding everyday opportunities to bring up the topic instead of saying things like "I want to talk to you about something," which will immediately set up the conversation to be awkward for your child. Was there a suicide recently covered by the news? Is your child's school implementing a suicide prevention program? Did they discuss the topic on a TV show or at school? Consider starting the conversation with "I read an article online about how parents should talk to their children about suicide" or "Did you hear about [insert news topic or prevention program]?"

Ask your child if he or she has thought of suicide — a straightforward question like that can be the push they needed to open up about their feelings. Stay calm and listen to your child's feelings as they open up before you offer your own opinion. This means holding back from immediately giving them advice, asking questions, and reflecting on their answers.

Regardless of your child's response, you should always respond in a nonjudgmental way. An empathetic and validating response from you could be the difference between suffering alone or seeking help for your child. You can say something like "It's really hard for me to hear that you've thought of ending your life, but I'm here for you and we'll get through this together," or "No matter what mistakes you might make in life, or what grades you get, your life is more important. Feelings come and go, but death is permanent. It's OK to feel guilt or sadness, but please let me know right away if you even have thoughts of ending your life. We'll get through this together."