Suicide is a leading cause of death in the US and an increasing concern among children, teens, and young adults. However, suicide remains a taboo topic in households and schools. Many parents and caregivers wrongly assume that asking a child or teen if they have experienced suicidal thoughts will cause suicidal ideation. In contrast, this is a harmful misconception because it prevents open communication about suicide between children and trusted adults. Failing to talk about difficult subjects such as depression and suicidal thoughts can create shame surrounding the subject matter and may cause kids and teens to withhold questions and feelings about these topics.
Oftentimes, children first bring up questions about suicide in response to news/media or following the death of a loved one. Parents and caregivers may struggle to find the words to discuss the topic of suicide with children. Sometimes, adults make the mistake of trying to distract the child by changing the subject or suggesting a fun activity when a child brings up a difficult topic. Parents and caregivers often use this method to shield the child from emotional pain. However, this may cause the child to feel confused about the topic and embarrassed for asking about it. This may even leave the child feeling hesitant about voicing curiosity or concern in the future. Changing the subject may help the parent to avoid a painful conversation in the moment but robs the child of a chance to express and process big feelings. Unresolved feelings and curiosity surrounding difficult topics can cause children to internalize negative emotions and exhibit externalizing behaviors such as tearfulness, difficulty sleeping, and acting out.
The best way to approach the subject of suicide and other difficult topics is to validate curiosity, provide simple, age-appropriate honest responses, and encourage the child to talk about their feelings.
If your child asks questions about suicide, first validate their question or concern by saying something like, “I’m glad you asked” or “I would be curious too.” Next, have an age-appropriate conversation about mental illness and the link between depression and suicide. To reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, it is important to explain a death by suicide in the same way you would talk about death by any other disease. More specifically, avoid language that describes suicide as a blameworthy choice. For a young child, this could be something like, “Uncle Joe had a disease called depression for many years before he died.” Model communication by sharing your feelings. Say something like, “I miss Uncle Joe and I feel very sad that he died. How are you feeling right now?”
Parents of older kids may want to talk about mental health resources such as school counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists to explain what they do and how they can help someone struggling with a mental illness. Additionally, for older kids and teens who are more likely to be familiar with mental illness and the concept of suicide, parents can ask open-ended questions to start a dialogue with their teens. You can ask something simple like, “what do you know about mental illness?” to begin the conversation.
It is also important for parents to be aware of the effects of news and media on kids’ and teens’ perceptions of suicide. While asking your child if they have experienced suicidal thoughts will not cause them to become suicidal, veneration of an individual lost to suicide is associated with increased suicidal thoughts and acts. This occurs because the deceased person’s life becomes the subject of positive attention and glorification. Those experiencing suicidal thoughts often feel shame and lack of belongingness. Seeing the deceased receive praise and accolades may provide the false notion that an individual can achieve praise and belongingness by ending their life. This effect is called suicide contagion and is an important topic to discuss with older teens, especially following a highly publicized suicide or the suicide of a peer.
Finally, parents should be aware of even subtle warning signs that a child is experiencing depression and/or suicidal thoughts. Changes in eating and sleeping patterns, loss of interest in extracurricular activities, physical complaints such as nausea or headache, and spending more time alone can all be signs your child or teen is depressed. More salient warning signs of suicidality include loss of hope for the future, negative self-talk, and feelings of burdensomeness.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 911 or contact the following resources for support:
Additional resources for talking to kids about suicide can be found at:
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