Talking to Children about Suicide
Telling a child that they’ve lost someone they care about is never, ever an easy task. It gets even more complicated and difficult when that loss is due to suicide
How do you begin to explain that to your child? Especially in a society where talking about suicide is still considered somewhat taboo? There is a common misconception that talking about suicide actually leads to more suicide attempts, as though it “inspires” others to try–but it turns out that the exact opposite is true. Because when suicide is openly discussed, it comes with discussion of resources, understanding warning signs, how to ask for help, etc.
It is also crucial that these conversations are had with any child who has witnessed or experienced a loss from suicide. If it isn’t talked about, all of those feelings of grief and confusion are ignored, exacerbated, and can manifest in your child in unwelcome ways (health problems, behavioral issues, mood challenges, lack of sleep, poor concentration, etc.)
But most of all: having these hard conversations with your children teaches them that they can come to you with heavy, complicated things.
Instead of brushing aside something uncomfortable, they are seeing you recognize their need for guidance and support, and they are seeing you trust them with the truth.
So how can you talk to your child about suicide?
Below are a few guidelines to stick to when talking to children about suicide, when it has happened to someone they know:
Talk somewhere private, where they feel safe:
Talking about death of any kind can be frightening for children. Make sure you wait to have this conversation until you are somewhere private, where you child feels comfortable and safe. This will help them feel okay to have whatever emotional reaction they have naturally, as well as remember that they are in no danger, that you are not upset with them, and overall make the experience as tolerable and comfortable for them as possible.
Address it like any other deadly disease:
If an uncle died of cancer, or heart disease, how would you address it with your child? Take this same idea and apply it. Explain to them that their loved one has passed, and tell them how. This doesn’t have to be graphic or detailed of course, but don’t hide how the death has happened. It’s important for them to know suicide is something to be openly discussed instead of shoved under the rug.
Start with the basics
Explain what suicide is, and explain that it often is a result of severe depression, which is an illness that affects the brain. This illness can make life so difficult for people that suicide seems like the only option for them. (Remember here to remind them that it is not the only option, and that they can come to you with anything at any time, and you will either help them directly or help them find resources that will help them).
Encourage questions + Ask them what they are feeling
This will all be new to your child, and quite possibly scary and confusing for them. Don’t wait for them to come back to you later with questions. Ask them what they’re feeling, if there is anything they don’t understand, if they have questions. And if they don’t at the time, let them know they can come back to you anytime they think of them–they don’t need to wait for you to sit them down again.
If you have noticed any warning signs of suicide in your child or teen, our clinicians can help.
-Linday N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT