How to Talk To Your Kids About Suicide


How To Talk To Your Kids About Suicide

Hearing the word “suicide” can evoke immediate feelings of fear, shock, tragedy,

sadness, grief, and thoughts of “What do I say?!” Sadly, the rate of child suicide and

suicide attempts have been rising putting parents in a position of broaching the following

questions of “Why” from their kids. Traditionally, the biggest conversation parents had to

fear was about the “Birds and the Bees,” but this is a new generation and with it comes

new challenges that we can’t just expect schools to handle. Generally speaking, it seems

more meaningful and impactful for parents to take the reigns and model being open about

talking through “tough stuff” with their kids. Easy for me to say when there’s nothing

really “easy” about suicide. It’s hard enough to try and understand it as an adult, let alone

explain it to a child, but here we are, and this is what adults and children are now facing

together. In my experience as a child and family therapist, these are some steps in talking

to your kids about suicide:

1. Keep it age appropriate

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that children as young as 4

will hear about major crisis events and that if they have questions, it’s best they

hear from you rather than social media or outside sources. Obviously, you don’t

talk to your 12-year-old the same way you talk to your 4-year-old, and the same

concept prevails here. Relay information with details fitting for the developmental

and cognitive understanding level of your child. For example, a child between 2-7

years old will engage in learning primarily through pretend play where basic,

short, and true answers work best where a child who is 8+ years old will be able

to have a more concrete, logical conversation.

As a professional who works with trauma, many children who have

histories with trauma can become stuck in a younger chronological age and

function from that younger developmental age even though, biologically, they are

older. With this in mind, a caregiver would approach their child from their

developmental age instead of their biological age.

In general, you are the expert on your child. Trust your gut on what they

can handle and allow them to guide the conversation with their questions!

* For a more detailed breakdown of do’s and don’ts when it comes to talking to

your kids about tragedy by age you can reference these articles:



2. Take Initiative

Whether it’s a child’s peer that commits suicide, someone in his/her/their social

circle, or you notice significant changes in your own child that suggest they may

be struggling with thoughts of suicide (for a list of warning signs to look for refer

to: it’s important to

take the initiative in starting the conversation. Your attunement to what’s going

on in your child’s world communicates, “I see you and want to understand you,”

which builds trust, feelings of self-worth, and validation with your child.

In determining when to sit down with your child, be thoughtful to choose a

time when they are in a calm state of mind –if they’re distracted, stressed,

hyper/hypo-aroused, tired, hungry etc. you will not be in a good place to access

their thinking/reasoning part of the brain (frontal cortex). Choose a time that

allows them a period to process afterward without the pressure of having an

activity (e.g. extra curricular, homework, sports, play date, etc.) or right before


There are different ways you can approach the conversation. The AAP

suggests that a good place to start when initiating conversation is by asking your

child what they’ve heard and then go from there. Another helpful method is to

start with a reflection or validation statement: “I/We know that Billy from school

died from suicide, that probably feels really sad and confusing and I/we’d like to

talk about it with you.” A different example from the perspective of if your child

is showing signs of suicidality may sound like this: “I/we notice that you’ve not

seemed yourself lately in the way you insert examples and we’d like to

understand what you’re going through right now and do what we can to help

make it better.” The point is not to ‘fix’ whatever’s going on, it’s simply showing

up and being available through starting a conversation about what you notice in

your child’s world.

3. Create an atmosphere of “felt safety” to share

What is “Felt Safety” you may be asking – it’s basically an empathic

environmental atmosphere that fosters a sense of physical and emotional security.

It’s a place where a person can be and share without threat of rejection, judgment,

or feeling ashamed or guilty. A parent creates this space through reflecting and

validating their child’s experience and/or reality with the goal of striving to

understand what the child is thinking and feeling. Show willingness to listen

through accepting expression of the feelings and by showing interest and support

to your child. Your tone should be inviting and empathetic and avoid reactions of

fear and shock, which can create disconnect and distance. Don’t be afraid to share

with your child and model voicing how the situation is impacting you – keeping

in mind age-appropriate disclosure that would not further burden your child by

creating a situation where they take on anxiety over your state of mind. Generally

speaking, the aim of creating an atmosphere of “felt safety” is to allow your child

the platform to be open in expressing his/her thoughts/feelings without fear of

your response.

Conversations and approaches to suicide should be restorative in nature –

not meant to stir up more dissention in its content, but to experience a general

sense of well-being and understanding at the conclusion.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be direct

One fact people may not realize about suicidality is that you can’t make a person

commit suicide or plant thoughts of suicide by merely talking about it. Asking a

person directly if they are feeling suicidal will not make a non-suicidal person

decide they are suicidal. Asking your child (in the present) if they’ve ever felt

suicidal (in the past) doesn’t mean you will stir this feeling up in them again (in

the present). In actuality, asking these types of questions may be a relief for some

children who may not have known how to communicate those thoughts/feelings.

One example of how to ask directly is, “Do things ever get so bad that you think

about dying?” And if the answer were yes, the next follow up question would be:

“Have you ever had thoughts of killing yourself?” By doing this, you have clarity

in asking direct questions and can ensure safety and/or next steps depending on

the need of your child.

5. Know your resources

You are not alone. There are many different levels of resources available to help

address matters involving suicide. You will most likely find helpful suggestions

by asking within your own parenting network as well! If you believe your child’s

life may be in danger, go immediately to your nearest children’s hospital

emergency room. If your child is struggling with suicidal thoughts and ideations,

finding a private, individual, child therapist is an excellent place to start. Other

helpful organizations to contact include:

 Community mental health agency

 School counselor or psychologist

 Closest suicide prevention/crisis intervention center

 Family physician

 Religious/spiritual leader

 Crisis text line (

 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255,

Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “perfect parent” and know that when

you sit down to talk to your child about suicide, the thing that means the most is

your genuine, caring, presence with them. We are creatures designed to feel

connection with those we’re closest to, and when that is achieved, there is great

power for healing.

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