How to Talk About Suicide with Children?

Talking to children about suicide isn't easy, but it's necessary to give them the information they need to address their concerns.
How to Talk About Suicide with Children?
Sharon Capeluto

Written and verified by the psychologist Sharon Capeluto.

Last update: 19 September, 2023

Talking about suicide with children is a complex situation. As a parent, it’s difficult to find the right words to talk about such a heartbreaking situation. Adapting the vocabulary to the age and cognitive abilities of your child as well as being clear and honest with them are guidelines to consider. In this article, we’ll provide recommendations to talk about suicide with your children in the most responsible and convenient way possible.

Recommendations when talking about suicide with children, according to their age

According to a report published by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in 2021, an estimated 703,000 people are expected to die by suicide each year. Communication is one of the main prevention measures. So, opening the dialogue about it with children is indispensable.

In general, this topic doesn’t come up as a topic of conversation until a particular event forces parents to talk about suicide with their children. This dialogue is imminent when:

  • A person close to the child has taken their own life or has attempted to.
  • The child has heard this term and doesn’t know what it means, so they ask about it.
  • The problem is related to something that’s happening to the child, so the parents approach the child to talk about it.

When approaching the topic of suicide, it’s important to keep in mind that as with topics such as death, sexuality, or money, the way we talk about them varies according to the age of the child. Whether we’re dealing with a three, eight, or fourteen-year-old, it’s critical to prioritize clarity and openness in communication.

Young children

When young children don’t get an answer, they create one on their own. If something is happening in their environment and they don’t fully understand it, they’ll find a way, usually unreal and magical, to make sense of what’s happening.

Professionals at Mental Illness Research Education Clinical, point out the importance of not overwhelming the child with too much information. It’s a matter of paying particular attention to the questions the child asks, in a calm and nonjudgmental way. So, you don’t need to give them details about what happened. Rather, let their own questions guide your words.

If you don’t know where to start, you can stick to the facts after giving a short introduction: “I’d like to talk to you about what happened with your uncle last night. He was feeling very sad and hurt himself. He’s getting help at the hospital right now.”

At the same time, it’s essential to use terms that the child understands. Language should be clear and simple. It’s best to use a soft and slow tone of voice and to put yourself at their level so that you can look each other in the eye.

It’s important to allow them to express their feelings freely and to ask all the questions they need to, even if they may be uncomfortable or very painful.

How to talk about suicide with children over 7 years of age

School-age children already have some knowledge of mental health issues. Gradually, they become more aware of their own and others’ emotions. However, this can also make them feel guilty for not having noticed a friend or family member’s emotional situation earlier.

In this case, it’s essential to provide support and explain that under no circumstances is the child to blame for what happened.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network published a guide for parents and caregivers on how to discuss a suicide death with children. They mention that hiding the fact that a loved one took their life and saying they died can lead to more problems down the road.

Lying to a child about it will cause them to lose trust and begin to question the truthfulness of what their caregivers’ say.

It’s not the job of adults to take away children’s pain.

Sadness is a healthy emotion within a grieving process. In this regard, we must validate what the child is feeling and accompany them through this difficult time, not keep them on the sidelines or prevent them from connecting with the pain.

Other recommendations for talking about suicide with school-age children are:

  • Find a comfortable and private place so that the child can express themself freely.
  • Involve their teachers and school administrators so that they’re aware of the situation.
  • Use language appropriate to the child’s age and level of understanding.
  • Speak honestly but avoid unnecessary graphic details.
  • Offer physical contact, such as hugs.

How to talk about suicide with children over 11

Pre-teens and teens understand the concept of death and suicide. Therefore, they need information that’s a little more concrete. Their questions may be more specific, although they may keep them to themselves. They may even be embarrassed to discuss their concerns or feelings with adults.

The latest data are alarming. The WHO (World Health Organization) reports that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. In parallel, the NASP (National Association of School Psychologists) notes that adolescents with suicidal ideation don’t seek help explicitly and directly.

However, they demonstrate their distress through behaviors such as goodbye notes or comments such as “I hope I fall asleep and never wake up again or “I don’t want to live.”

It’s essential to prevent suicide or other mental health issues from becoming taboo. The best prevention measure is to talk about what’s happening. There’s no point in hiding a reality, no matter how heartbreaking it may be.

Clarity, empathy, and honesty

In general terms, when discussing suicide with children, it’s essential to consider their age and level of development. For this, we can ask “Do they understand the irreversibility of death?”, “Do they know what suicide means or is this the first time they’ve heard the term?”.

It’s essential to adapt our discourse to their needs, but always be direct, empathetic, and honest. We must ensure a warm and safe space.

In turn, asking for professional help can be of great help if we don’t feel able to address this situation. A psychologist or psychiatrist could provide you with specific tools to help you manage the moment, taking into account the particularities of the case.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.