How to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide at Every Age

Asian mom talking to son

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Suicide is a challenging topic, but it is one that will statistically touch many people's live in some way. Whether it is a friend, family member, beloved community member, a coworker, or celebrity, the number of people we lose each year to suicide across the globe is staggering. In fact, nearly 800,000 people die by suicide in the world each year, which is roughly one death every 40 seconds.

"Although it seems like a rare occurrence, depending on which studies you read, suicide is the second or third major cause of death in people ages 10 to 24," says Naomi Angoff Chedd, LMHC, BCBA, LBA, the director of counselor support services at Counslr. "So it is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently and in multiple ways, by both professionals and parents."

One of the best ways to prevent suicide is to talk about it. Because when we talk about suicide openly and honestly—even with our kids—this removes the stigma surrounding it. No longer is it something that is shrouded in secrecy or covered in a veil of shame. And if your children learn to talk about suicide openly and honestly, they will know what to do not only if they suspect a friend needs help but also if they experience suicidal ideation themselves.

John Ackerman, PhD

Creating a safe space to talk about suicide can save a child’s life.

— John Ackerman, PhD

"Creating a safe space to talk about suicide can save a child’s life," says John Ackerman, PhD, pediatric psychologist and suicide prevention clinical manager with the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. "Multiple studies show that asking about suicide is not harmful, but can be empowering. You won’t put the idea into their heads and if a child has been struggling with thoughts of suicide, knowing that a concerned adult is willing to have an open conversation is often a relief."

If you are wondering how to broach the topic with your kids, we have you covered. Below you will find out how mental health professionals suggest you approach the subject with your child, regardless of their age.

Should You Talk to Your Kids About Suicide?

When it comes to talking about suicide, most parents naturally shy away from the topic. After all, it is a painful subject that can be a challenge to address. But mental health experts indicate that it is vital for parents to talk about suicide openly and honestly with their kids. These conversations create a safe environment where children can ask questions while providing an avenue for factual information. 

"One of the most important reasons to speak to your child about suicide is to ensure you have a chance to clarify the truth and dispel any misinformation they have heard," says Zishan Khan, MD, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. "Parents should realize that one of the best measures of prevention is communicating with your child, which allows for the discovery of something being wrong earlier on and getting your child the help they truly need to minimize the threat of suicide."

Discussing this topic in a compassionate way opens the door for future conversations, says Dr. Ackerman. When a child has been considering suicide, it can be a relief that a caring adult is willing to talk, he adds.

Naomi Angoff Chedd, LMHC, BCBA, LBA

Talking about suicide [also] removes the veil of secrecy and the toxicity from the topic and makes it acceptable for your child to express their true thoughts, feelings, or concerns about themselves or their friends.

— Naomi Angoff Chedd, LMHC, BCBA, LBA

"Talking about suicide [also] removes the veil of secrecy and the toxicity from the topic and makes it acceptable for your child to express their true thoughts, feelings, or concerns about themselves or their friends," says Angoff Chedd. "They also get the unequivocal message that you care deeply about them, and their happiness and well-being matters to you."

That said, Angoff Chedd says that these talks should only happen at a well-considered time. They should always be in age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate language, with an emphasis on developmentally appropriate, she says. 

"If a family friend, relative or acquaintance or even a popular media icon, like a rock star or actor, dies by suicide, your child will hear about it at school, among friends, in the popular media and most likely, on social media," she says. "You, as a parent, want to provide not only the facts, but also emotional support around the issue.  You want to control the narrative and not leave it to chance."

Talking About Suicide With Preschoolers

Most experts agree that preschoolers may be too young to fully comprehend a complex topic like suicide. In fact, they are just beginning to learn that death is permanent and most don’t fully understand the definition or implications of the term "suicide," Dr. Ackerman explains.

That said, if a family member dies by suicide, then it might be important to use concrete, unambiguous language. Be direct and help them understand that the brain can get sick, and this sometimes makes some people want to stop living, he adds. While you should be honest, you do not need to share details with them.

"It can be tricky when it comes to speaking about suicide to such a young child, and I would not suggest you bring up the subject on your own to them," Dr. Kahn says. "However, it is just as important not to shy away from the topic if you find your preschooler showing curiosity about suicide and asking questions. In such cases, it is best to keep your answers short and more generalized."

Follow your child’s lead and answer their questions as honestly as you can and with comforting reassurance. It is important to give simple explanations, such as telling your 4-year-old: “Uncle Dan was very sick. His body stopped working and he died. Let’s always remember him and talk about all the fun we had with him," Angoff Chedd says.

"[You do not] need to go into more detail, unless you believe your child is hearing inappropriate or untrue stories or asks more questions," she says. "In my opinion, do not use euphemisms, such as saying 'Uncle Dan went to sleep for a very long time.' Your child may believe that Uncle Dan is just having a long nap and he will wake up."

How to Talk About Suicide With Grade Schoolers 

When you bring up the topic of suicide with your child, you need to consider their maturity and understanding, while also keeping in mind that every child is different.

"Follow your gut, since no one knows your child better than you do," he says. "If you feel they can handle certain subject matters, you should feel comfortable sharing more with them. "

If you do end up discussing suicide with your grade schooler, stress that people who die by suicide have been affected by an illness, he adds. Focus on the fact that the loss of life is extremely sad for an individual’s parents and loved ones. 

Zishan Khan, MD

Remain attuned to your child during the discussion, and answer any questions truthfully, while at the same time being careful not to divulge too much information or details that may increase a child’s fear and worry.

— Zishan Khan, MD

"Remain attuned to your child during such the discussion, and answer any questions truthfully, while at the same time being careful not to divulge too much information or details that may increase a child’s fear and worry," Dr. Khan says.

Always leave the door open for more conversations about it in the future, suggests Angoff Chedd. Additionally, let them know that it is okay to feel sad, ask questions, and to miss and talk about the person who died by suicide.

Keep in mind that children are more likely to disclose thoughts of suicide to peers rather than parents or caregivers due to fears about how they might react, says Dr. Ackerman. Consequently, when you think your child is ready, it is important to initiate a conversation and give them clear permission that it is okay to talk about suicide.

"Let them know that they will be taken seriously and that you will work together to get the necessary help," he adds. "Remind them that they have done nothing wrong and that as a parent you want to help them through hard times—especially when things have gotten so tough that life seems like it is not worth living."

Talking With Your Preteen About Suicide

At this age, a discussion about suicide can be much more open due to the fact that preteens have a better understanding of death in general. It can be helpful to ask your child questions to gauge what they already know, suggests Dr. Khan. This can also help you ascertain what misinformation they may have encountered. 

Before having a lengthy conversation about suicide, find out what your child already knows—or think they know—about the subject. Start by asking whether any of their friends are struggling, what they would do to support them, and what options are available for help and treatment.

You also want to assure them that in most cases, mental health challenges are treatable and they are not weak for being depressed, anxious, or having thoughts of suicide, Dr. Ackerman says. Stress that you are there to carry the weight with them, help them find help, and to make sure they don’t act on those thoughts.

"Familiarity could be a good or bad thing," says Dr. Ackerman. "Exposure to suicide without the emotional space to understand that there is hope can be overwhelming for kids. We don’t want YouTube or hallway conversation to be the sole source of education around this topic. Opening the door to talk about suicide without blame or shame is critical."

When appropriate, you can ask your child, “Do you ever feel so sad that you feel like you just can’t cope?” Or “Have you ever felt so bad you wanted to die?” says Angoff Chedd. Even if they say no, let them know that they can always talk to you about things like this.

“Normalizing” mental health issues is also a good approach, but it’s a delicate balance," she adds. "Let them know that everyone feels sad and disappointed sometimes—that’s normal—but that there is help available."

Being Honest With Your Teen About Suicide

By the time your teen is 14 or older, the risk of suicide has increased considerably, Dr. Ackerman says. They also have likely either encountered someone who has a mental health condition or experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety themselves. 

"It becomes even more crucial to ensure your child knows what to do when they or someone they know experiences suicidal ideation," says Dr. Khan. "Also, ensure you emphasize the fact that you are always available for them and that there is help available by other means as well, including the recently implemented 988 suicide and crisis lifeline."

If your child admits to considering suicide or shares some insight into their feelings or anxieties, remember that they likely want to be heard and for someone to understand their emotional pain, Dr. Ackerman says.

"Be honest and direct about suicide—even if [your child] pushes back," says Angoff Chedd. "[Stress] the importance of openly discussing any difficult feelings they are having, particularly depression, anxiety, and feelings of unworthiness, isolation or failure. Bringing the subject up in a slightly removed or more neutral context can lead to a good conversation." 

For example, she suggests saying something like: “I read about that singer who died by suicide. That is really tragic. She was so talented. Are your friends talking about this?”  Or you could share an observation like: “Sophie seems so sad these days. Do you ever worry about her?"  You can even ask:  "How about you? How are you doing, with all the stressors you have to deal with?” 

"One-on-one conversations can provide time for them to process and respond without interruption," says Brooke Schwartz, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. "These discussions don’t have to be formal, either. They could happen while in the car or doing an activity together. The most important thing is that the conversations take place when [your teen] is willing to have them and has enough time to ask questions."

Try not to shy away from giving truthful and realistic answers that allow your teen to feel like they have a safe space to explore the reality of suicide, Schwartz suggests. Refrain from skirting around the topic or speaking in vague terms. Instead, be direct and clear.

"The more you insert your judgments or fears about suicide, the less likely your child will want to have open and honest conversations," Schwartz says. "It’s [also] important to regulate your emotions during these conversations. Respond rather than react to what their child shares. [Also] avoid asking your child leading questions such as, 'You don’t think about suicide, do you?' Instead, try saying, 'I wonder if you ever think about suicide.'"

A Word From Verywell

Talking about suicide can feel scary and even overwhelming. But it is not a topic you should shy away from. In fact, talking about suicide openly and honestly with your kids in age appropriate and non-judgmental ways can be paramount in preventing suicide in their lives or the lives of their friends.

If you find that your child is struggling with thoughts of suicide or displaying signs of depression or anxiety, do not hesitate getting them the help that they need. You can dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Hotline, and if someone is in immediate danger, do not hesitate to call call 911.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about suicide.

  3. Dazzi T, Gribble R, Wessely S, Fear NT. Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychol Med. 2014;44(16):3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.