Talking To Your Kids About Suicide

Recently I’ve had to talk to my children about a topic no parent wants to discuss with their kids.  Suicide.  As a psychologist, I have a clinical understanding of suicide, but as a parent I know it’s hard to explain to your children why someone would try to take their own life.

I have struggled with finding the right words myself, especially with a tragedy of such magnitude.  Since I wrestle with these feelings, I am sure that you might too, so I wanted to share some tips that might help you in your conversations with your own children:

Gather your courage to  talk to your children.  As parents, we want to protect our children from terrible things.  But it is also our obligation as parents to be honest with our kids when tragedy does strike.  My rule of thumb is that if the bad news is something I think they will hear about from other children, then I want to be the one who talks to them about it first.  I would rather that my children hear heartbreaking news from me, in a way that is personal and takes into account their feelings and questions, than from a child on the playground who may not provide the correct or appropriate information.

When talking about suicide, you’ll want to keep your conversation at a level that’s appropriate for your child’s developmental level.  The younger the child the more vague and short your descriptions can be, while older children will have more questions and want more details.  Be honest if you don’t have all the answers to their questions by saying “I don’t know” or “We may never know.”   I can say with assurance though that hiding what is going on from your children if it is publicly known will do more harm than good in the long run.  You’d rather have your children know that you are a person that they can talk to about tragedies, rather than a person who hides from them.

Explain suicide in a way they can understand.  One of the hardest things for children to understand is why someone would try to take their own life.  Kids usually have experienced the death of a loved one to an accident or illness.  While difficult to cope with, there are usually clear answers to how or why the person died.  When talking about suicide, you can explain what depression is and then tell your children that sometimes people feel so sad or upset that their mind is in a sense suffering from an illness.  Even though the person may have looked happy or good on the outside, they had a sickness in their mind that made them not be able to cope with their sadness in a way that was healthy.  With kids, I have often compared it to a seemingly healthy person dying suddenly from a heart attack.  Although they looked healthy on the outside, something was going wrong on the inside that we did not know about.

Be sure to include in your explanation that there was nothing that your child did that caused this or anything that they could have done to prevent it.  Assure your child that the person loved them very much and that they knew of your child’s love for them.

One explanation that I like from Suicide Awareness Voices of Education is “Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person’s brain can get very sick – the sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a person’s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so sometimes they can’t think clearly. Some people can’t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don’t understand that they don’t have to feel that way, that they can get help.”

Encourage them to talk to trusted adults.  After learning of a suicide attempt, children will naturally have questions and want to talk more about what’s going on.  Encourage your children to talk with you, their teachers, school counselors, or other trusted adults.  Just today I had to tell my 7 year old that if she had questions about this that she needed to ask an adult, not another child.  When I asked her why, she said “Because kids don’t always know what they’re talking about.”  Even she understands that!  As adults, we don’t always know what we’re talking about either, but we can respond in a way that is both sensitive and appropriate to the situation.

In loving tribute to my friends Mr. Penny and Wes Glisson

For 24 hour help you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or contact a psychologist in your community.

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About Dr. Polly Dunn

Child clinical psychologist, wife, and mom of four blogging about her 'Perfectly Imperfect' parenting solutions.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Cater Childs says:

    Thank you so much for this, Polly. Great advice!

  2. Wonderful article Polly- we really struggled last night in talking to our children! Thanks! MK

    • I have had a hard time coming up with the right things to say myself for the past day! We are all in this together. Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I’m stuck on the fear that my child will ask about method (my father used a gun to the head). How do I answer this likely question during our talks? She is a precocious 8 yr old.

    • That’s such a difficult situation to be in. If your child does ask, it’s okay to say that he “shot himself.” Usually that will be sufficient. Often the question that children ask most is “Why?” But the “How?” question can be just as difficult to answer. When you give your answer, be very calm and matter of fact about it. Children do not need to hear all of the details, just give basic non-graphic answers that are at their level. The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention is a great resource for coping with suicide loss that you might find helpful for yourself and your daughter. Click here for the link to the children’s section.

  4. Thank you for this helpful info. I will be talking to my daughters tomorrow about the how and why of their father’s suicide. I have kept it from them because they were 3 and 5 when he died and I needed to protect/shield them from the awful truth. This is not my usual style of parenting but Mama instincts are good to go by I’ve found so far in life…
    My girls are 7 and almost 9 and are both involved in a grief group in their school that was made available through the local Hospice. The counselor brought it to my attention that I am doing them no favors by keeping them from the truth. They are silent in the group mostly because they have no idea why or how their father died. Almost like it is a secret that they are not supposed to talk about. I am obviously not looking forward to opening up the raw grief that comes with loss through suicide but will be relieved to let my girls start their healing process with less confusion and -hopefully- less anger through clarifying any questions that they have.
    Thanks again for the valuable resources:)

    • My children are six and three, and their father, my husband, killed himself three weeks ago. My six year old son is aware that the police were at our house the night his father died, and he is aware that Daddy was hurt.

      So far, I’ve used language such as, “Daddy was sick” and “his heart stopped working.” I’ve used other language, but ‘hurt’ is from he. He shaped his hand like a gun when he said this to me. He may think the police hurt his dad. They did not, but there was quite a scene at our home that night. (Gunshots in Suburb-landia tend to bring out three or more jurisdictions, and a helicopter.) The children slept through most of it, but woke up at daybreak, when the police and medical examiner were still on the property. (No one in my family saw it happen, found him, or saw him dead.)

      I have always been honest with my children and I want to be honest with them now. My son is asking questions and I believe at some level he must know and he knows he is receiving only part of the whole truth. I had to tell him that his dad died the morning after it happened and I will never forget, ever, the way he looked at me.

      Is six too young to know his dad killed himself? I could probably deal with the aftermath of his reaction better now than later, and it will be hard for me to face lying to him for much longer.

      • I am so sorry for your loss. Your maternal instinct is right, you do want to be honest with your children about the way their father died. That’s exactly what you should do. Keeping it a secret will only make things more difficult on you and on them. There’s a great online booklet that gives more details about how to talk to your kids about suicide. Check it out for some tips on the type of language you should use when talking with your young children. Here’s the link: http://www.nalag.org.au/pubs/Supporting_Children_After_Suicide_Booklet.pdf Again, my deepest sympathies.

  5. I am the mother of a wonderful 3 year old daughter. Her biological mother killed herself when my daughter was five months old–she had had mental illness throughout her life and then post-partum depression.

    Her father and I have not talked to her about her biological mother’s death yet, and she knows only me as Mommy. I don’t think she even understands that she had a different birth mother. We don’t want to hide the truth from her either, but I’ve been very concerned about how/when/if to broach the subject with her. The first two years of her life were fairly unstable and she had no routine–her dad and I have worked very hard in the last year as we’ve become a cohesive family together to provide this structure and support for her. She’s doing great.

    There is really no literature that I can find that discusses how to talk about suicide and the death of a parent to a young child who was so young when the parent died that they don’t remember them at all. What is the best way to incorporate this sensitively and factually with her?

    • Your situation has two aspects to consider. First, how and when to tell her that she was adopted. Different families have different opinions about what is the best time to tell a child that information, many opting to tell them from a very young age that they were adopted. Second, talking with her about her biological mother’s death. That would only be something you would approach after she knows and understands that she was adopted. She will naturally begin to have questions about her biological parents and that will open the door to conversations about how her mother died. At that point, I would use some of the resources I offered in this post and consult with a child psychologist in your community to assist you if you have further questions or concerns. Best of luck.

  6. christina says:

    Thank you so much for this. I have been restless and haven’t been able to sleep tonight because earlier in the day while I was talking to my 13 year old daughter about lies she may be hearing from her father about me and the truth of how things were growing up, the reason I left her father; she actually opened up to me about things that were happening while with her father ( my 4 girls live with him, and he ended up moving them away back to NC where my family is and his girlfriend is ). She told me so things that just totally crushed me. One of them is that she had thoughts of hurting herself. Our whole conversation started with her asking me about the marks on my arm…I battle depression and in my life so far i have always battled it ( sometimes untreated because i didn’t know i had it ) and i have attempted suicide a few times myself in my 35 years of living. I honestly didn’t know what to say to her about not doing it because of my own battle. I had to call her cousin ( who is her fathers niece but is very trustworthy ) and i talked to her about what i was told, while my daughter was still there with me so she was okay with her knowing, so to help me she will be coming in the morning and she is going to spend the day with my daughter after her kids get dropped off for camp. She is going to let her vent with her as well but she is going to help talk to her about suicide and other things. I never thought that i would ever hear any of my children say that they want to hurt themselves.

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