Talking about suicide can be difficult, especially with younger children. In this Verywell Family article, Zishan Khan, MD, explains how to talk with children in each age group about suicide.
Suicide is a challenging topic, but it is one that will statistically touch many people’s lives in some way. Whether it is a friend, family member, beloved community member, coworker, or celebrity, the number of people we lose each year to suicide across the globe is staggering. In fact, nearly 800,000 people die by suicide in the world each year, which is roughly one death every 40 seconds.
One of the best ways to prevent suicide is to talk about it. Because when we talk about suicide openly and honestly—even with our kids—this removes the stigma surrounding it. No longer is it something that is shrouded in secrecy or covered in a veil of shame. And if your children learn to talk about suicide openly and honestly, they will know what to do not only if they suspect a friend needs help but also if they experience suicidal ideation themselves.
Should You Talk to Your Kids About Suicide?
When it comes to talking about suicide, most parents naturally shy away from the topic. After all, it is a painful subject that can be a challenge to address. But mental health experts indicate that it is vital for parents to talk about suicide openly and honestly with their kids. These conversations create a safe environment where children can ask questions while providing an avenue for factual information.
“One of the most important reasons to speak to your child about suicide is to ensure you have a chance to clarify the truth and dispel any misinformation they have heard,” says Zishan Khan, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “Parents should realize that one of the best measures of prevention is communicating with your child, which allows for the discovery of something being wrong earlier on and getting your child the help they truly need to minimize the threat of suicide.”
“If a family friend, relative or acquaintance or even a popular media icon, like a rock star or actor, dies by suicide, your child will hear about it at school, among friends, in the popular media and most likely, on social media,” she says. “You, as a parent, want to provide not only the facts, but also emotional support around the issue. You want to control the narrative and not leave it to chance.”
Talking About Suicide with Preschoolers
Most experts agree that preschoolers may be too young to fully comprehend a complex topic like suicide. In fact, they are just beginning to learn that death is permanent, and most don’t fully understand the definition or implications of the term “suicide,” Dr. Ackerman explains.
That said, if a family member dies by suicide, then it might be important to use concrete, unambiguous language. Be direct and help them understand that the brain can get sick, and this sometimes makes some people want to stop living, he adds. While you should be honest, you do not need to share details with them.
Follow your child’s lead and answer their questions as honestly as you can and with comforting reassurance. It is important to give simple explanations, such as telling your 4-year-old: “Uncle Dan was very sick. His body stopped working and he died. Let’s always remember him and talk about all the fun we had with him,” Angoff Chedd says.
How to Talk About Suicide with Grade Schoolers
When you bring up the topic of suicide with your child, you need to consider their maturity and understanding, while also keeping in mind that every child is different.
If you do end up discussing suicide with your grade schooler, stress that people who die by suicide have been affected by an illness, he adds. Focus on the fact that the loss of life is extremely sad for an individual’s parents and loved ones.
“Remain attuned to your child during such discussions, and answer any questions truthfully, while at the same time being careful not to divulge too much information or details that may increase a child’s fear and worry,” Dr. Khan says.
Always leave the door open for more conversations about it in the future, suggests Angoff Chedd. Additionally, let them know that it is okay to feel sad, ask questions, and to miss and talk about the person who died by suicide.
Talking with Your Preteen About Suicide
At this age, a discussion about suicide can be much more open due to the fact that preteens have a better understanding of death in general. It can be helpful to ask your child questions to gauge what they already know, suggests Dr. Khan. This can also help you ascertain what misinformation they may have encountered.
Before having a lengthy conversation about suicide, find out what your child already knows—or think they know—about the subject. Start by asking whether any of their friends are struggling, what they would do to support them, and what options are available for help and treatment.
You also want to assure them that in most cases, mental health challenges are treatable, and they are not weak for being depressed, anxious, or having thoughts of suicide, Dr. Ackerman says. Stress that you are there to carry the weight with them, help them find help, and to make sure they don’t act on those thoughts.
“Familiarity could be a good or bad thing,” says Dr. Ackerman. “Exposure to suicide without the emotional space to understand that there is hope can be overwhelming for kids. We don’t want YouTube or hallway conversation to be the sole source of education around this topic. Opening the door to talk about suicide without blame or shame is critical.”
Being Honest with Your Teen About Suicide
By the time your teen is 14 or older, the risk of suicide has increased considerably, Dr. Ackerman says. They also have likely either encountered someone who has a mental health condition or experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety themselves.
“It becomes even more crucial to ensure your child knows what to do when they or someone they know experiences suicidal ideation,” says Dr. Khan. “Also, ensure you emphasize the fact that you are always available for them and that there is help available by other means as well, including the recently implemented 988 suicide and crisis lifeline.”
If your child admits to considering suicide or shares some insight into their feelings or anxieties, remember that they likely want to be heard and for someone to understand their emotional pain, Dr. Ackerman says.
“Be honest and direct about suicide—even if [your child] pushes back,” says Angoff Chedd. “[Stress] the importance of openly discussing any difficult feelings they are having, particularly depression, anxiety, and feelings of unworthiness, isolation or failure. Bringing the subject up in a slightly removed or more neutral context can lead to a good conversation.”
“One-on-one conversations can provide time for them to process and respond without interruption,” says Brooke Schwartz, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. “These discussions don’t have to be formal, either. They could happen while in the car or doing an activity together. The most important thing is that the conversations take place when [your teen] is willing to have them and has enough time to ask questions.”