Growing up sucks. Suddenly your eyes are opened to the world and all its gory details. It’s especially worse when this happens to young children; when you’re unable to protect them from these harsh realities.
Suicide is a global public health crisis with more than 700,000 people dying by it every year, 77% of them from low and middle-income countries. For every death, there are many more people who attempted suicide. Explaining the death of a loved one to children is heartbreaking enough, explaining that it was by suicide must be agonizing. Talking to children about suicide however difficult is essential and may even be life-saving.
Talk about it and tell the truth
A question that is often asked after the suicide of a loved one is ‘what should I tell the children?’ The answer? The truth. Regardless of how difficult it may be.
In broad generalities:
- Explain that the person has died.
- Give simple details about how they died.
- Say that the person took their own life.
- Provide a more detailed explanation of how the person died.
- Explain possible reasons why the person decided to kill themselves.
It’s important to talk about it for three reasons:
- Children deserve the truth and lying always backfires and can even ruin the relationship between child and parent.
- Mental illness runs in the family and mental health issues affect almost every family. Sharing accurate information about mental health and suicide gives children accurate information about it.
- Even if it has not happened in your family but your child has heard about it, take it as a starting point and entryway to have a candid talk about suicide and its impact on others.
Preschool-Kindergarten: Stick to the basics
Tell them a person died and just as you would with any other disease such as cancer or cause such as an accident, just say they had a disease and it just took over and killed them. Explain that it’s okay to be sad.
Ages 7-10: Give short, true answers
Emphasize that death is sad and that they died from a disease. You can name it. Say they had an illness called depression and suffered with it for many years. Say you wish the person would have been able to get more help.
Let the child guide the conversation so that you don’t end up providing too much information or more than the child wants or can process. The idea is to follow their cues, answer their questions honestly, and not overwhelm them with your explanation.
Ages 11-14: Be more concrete
This age group demands more concrete engagement. Parents need to have conversations with young teens and pre-teens about the warning signs of suicide. The early teen and pre-teen years are extremely stressful for many children and by that age one in three children have experienced mood dysregulation that scares them.
For this group, start the conversation with questions. Ask them what they heard about the death. Ask what they’ve heard about suicide. Ask about what they believe. This allows you to enter the conversation where they are and decreases the risk of overwhelming them with information that may end up stressing them.
This also allows you to correct any misinformation they may have come by such as weak people die by suicide or it’s the dead person’s fault. This allows you to clarify that depression is just like any other disease and if someone for example died from cancer, no one would blame them or call them weak.
With this group, parents have to go a step further and ask if the child has thought about suicide or if any of their friends have. Let the child feel safe and ask clear questions that they hopefully feel safe enough to be candid.
High school 15-19: Not if. When.
Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds. After having the same general conversation as you would with your pre-teen, follow it up with a question not of if they or their friends have considered suicide but when. Not if they have experienced any mental health conditions but when.
Talk about what they would do if they were worried about themselves or about their friends. Experts say it is nearly impossible for a child to go through high school without knowing someone with a mental health condition.
Reassure them that having a mental health condition is perfectly normal and is in no way a personal failure on their part and they should ask for help. Let them know about places they can seek help, a relative or friend who you trust and who they trust who they can go to if there’s a problem and they’re for whatever reason not willing to speak to you.
Speak to teenagers as you would speak to another adult which is how they want to be addressed and respond best.
Constantly check in on older children away from home especially if they experienced suicidal ideation or know someone who died by apparent suicide. Suicide in the family or within your circles and theirs can be a trigger. Ask how they are. Ask if there’s any way you can support them.
Because of the stigma around suicide, people sometimes grieve in a more isolated and lonely way than other bereaved people. Research shows that people bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member are 65% more likely to attempt suicide if the deceased died by suicide than if they died by natural causes.
Create a safe space and perpetually open door policy for children to speak to you about it and any other emotional or mental health concerns that may pop up.
Also check out Mental Health: Myths About Suicide
You can watch this show and maybe discuss it with your teenagers