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September 27, 2016
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.
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.
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: