Talking With Children About Suicide

September 27, 2016

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Posted in: Families, Grade School, Hot Topics, Teenagers

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Suicide is an unfortunate and unavoidable reality in the lives of children and youth. Whether it occurs with a family member, a classmate or schoolmate, in the community, or in the media, the topic of suicide is complicated and difficult for adults to discuss with children. This arises as a result of a number of sources, including the adult’s own feelings about the individual who died, cultural prejudices and societal taboos about discussing suicide, as well as fears and misconceptions about how children can handle frank and open discussions on the topic. The following blog offers a summary of recommendations from multiple sources about how to talk with children in these difficult circumstances.

As with any sensitive topic of discussion, it’s important to prepare yourself first.

  • What are your own feelings about suicide? Does it make you sad or fearful?
  • Do you have strong religious or metaphysical beliefs about it?
  • What are your own questions and unresolved views about suicide?
  • Do you know anyone from your past who committed suicide? What was it like for you?  What did you do to cope with the grief and loss?  Did you talk with others about your reactions?
  • With respect to a current situation, what do you know about the person who died? How close are you to that person? What do you know about how he or she died? Did you have any idea that the person was at risk?

Thinking about these questions yourself will help you anticipate those that a child might have, including concerns about how you are dealing with the death.

Of central concern is the child’s relationship to the person who died. If it is a parent or close family member, it will be paramount to acknowledge how hard it is to face the death of someone who is close to you, and to validate the sense of sadness, loss, confusion or anxiety/fear that the child and you are each experiencing.

Some tips for parents are below.

  • Be sure to talk with the child in a quiet place without distractions and interruptions.
  • It’s best to start with a simple statement like, “I want to talk to you about XXX who died by suicide—which means he killed himself. I want to hear what you’re thinking and feeling about it.”
  • The rest of the conversation should be guided by the child’s response to that statement. If they want to ask questions, encourage them to do so, and answer them as simply and honestly as possible. They may be too upset to talk, in which case it’s appropriate to acknowledge that it can be hard to talk when one is hurting or upset.
  • You might want to share your own feelings of sadness and confusion by simply stating, “It makes me sad. I can’t really understand why XXX died by suicide, but I’m pretty sure it’s because they were in a lot of pain.”
  • If the child is interested in learning more about what might have caused the person to do this, it’s appropriate to mention that some people with illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder can get confused and make sad decisions. It’s also appropriate to express the idea that while you can’t really know what XXX was thinking at the time, they were probably in so much pain that they thought, in the moment, that dying was the only way to stop it.
  • If the child has additional questions that you can’t answer, it’s OK to simply say that you don’t know all of the answers.
  • It’s also important to let the child know that dealing with feelings about a person’s death will take time, and that you’re interested in talking with them whenever they want to talk.

Following this initial conversation, it’s important to check in with the child periodically to learn what they are thinking and feeling about the person’s death, and whether they have any other questions about suicide. It’s good to speak about person who died in a caring and respectful fashion, and to emphasize their positive traits as well as the good things they did when they were alive.

Remind the child that if they are ever struggling with painful feelings and needs to talk to someone, there is always a way to get help.

Older children may continue to ask questions about suicide and mental illness. This is an important opening to engage them in learning more about mental health issues. If mentioned, it’s helpful to clarify the difference between death by suicide (usually the result of an illness) and “suicide bombers,” who are dying in order to hurt or kill others as part of a military conflict.

From the standpoint of suicide prevention, it’s important to let children know that, while it is less common, other children may die by suicide when they’re feeling so upset that they’re unable to handle the pain in their lives. The most important idea to convey is that when someone is in terrible pain, it may be hard for him or her to see any way out of the situation except through death. And, that’s when it is most important to let a trusted adult know—so that a different solution to the problem can be found for the child who is struggling.

For further information and support on this difficult topic, you might consult resources like NAMI and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, as well as those listed below:

 

Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., M.A.

Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., M.A.

Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., M.A. is professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and vice chair of education for the Department of Psychiatry. He is also co-director of the Penn Adult ADHD...

To read full bio click here.

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