It can be very difficult to talk to children about suicide
Suicide is often very confusing and difficult for children and adults to understand. Many adults have mixed reactions, often questioning spiritual truths, models of mental illness, and issues of choice. Many survivors of suicide report a combination of feelings, from anger, anxiety, disbelief, and shock.
Here are some tips that may help parents talk to their children about suicide
Consider the age of your child
Younger children may not understand what suicide means. It is ok to tell them that the suicide victim had an illness in their brain and died. That may be all the explanation they need. As children get older, you may wish to explain because of the illness in their brain, the person caused their own death intentionally.
You may wish to explain that person who died didn’t try to hurt those around them
You can explain that the person’s illness made it difficult to think clearly, and they made a decision that wasn’t healthy.
Assure your child that they are safe, loved, and blame-free
You can assure her that she didn’t cause this to happen (if she knew the person), and that you will continue to take good care of her. If appropriate, assure your child that the person loved her, and that nothing your child did/didn’t do caused the death.
Some children worry that if other people are worried or sad that they will also die
You can explain that suicide is rare, but it is always important to talk to an adult about their concerns. Teach them to never keep a secret if someone they know is hurting himself or thinking about suicide.
Try to avoid discussions about the morals of suicide
This is a difficult area to navigate for children, as most children still see issues in black/white terms. Simply explaining that suicide happens when the person’s pain and illness is more than the person could manage anymore is probably sufficient. Over time, as your child enters adulthood, they will be better able to reason and come to their own conclusions on this issue. You can certainly model compassion and empathy for the suicide victim, explaining that s/he must have been experiencing something very, very painful to make that decision.
Make sure your child knows it is ok to ask questions and talk about suicide whenever s/he needs to
Identify people that they can talk to, such as parents, counselors, and therapists. You can talk to them about grief, and how things won’t always feel as sad and difficult as they do right now. Teach them about hope, resilience, and gratitude. Validate their feelings, and try to help them find good things in their life daily. Be prepared to answer questions for your child on many occasions.
Teach your child that suicide is never the answer
If they feel sad, or someone around them feels sad, it is important to tell someone. It is always important to tell someone if you are feeling so sad you feel like hurting yourself.
Suggested Reading for Parents and Children About Suicide
- L.K. Brown & M. Brown (1996). When Dinosaurs Die. Little, Brown, & Company: Boston, MA.
- Nichols Anderson, C. (2013) Weathering Life’s Adversities.
- Nichols Anderson, C. (2013). Building Resiliency in Our Children.
- Nichols Anderson, C. (2013). Finding Gratitude.