Talking To Children About Suicide

Why start a conversation about suicide?

It’s hard for parents to know whether they should talk to their children about suicide. There is concern about the emotional or psychological damage they might inflict on them. It is unhelpful to burden children with the ‘how’ of suicide. There is no value in focusing on the methods people use to end their life. If an explanation is requested, you could say, ‘They injured their body and it stopped working’, or They took medicines that stopped their heart working’.

Researchers agree talking about suicide has significant benefits, giving children and young people the confidence to share their concerns and to seek help.

Parents might also feel inadequate, not knowing how or what to say. The strategies included in this article may help to address some of this uneasiness.

It is inevitable children will learn about suicide. They may overhear adult conversations, see something on the TV or social media, or have someone in their family or friendship circle die by suicide. But the knowledge they receive may be unhelpful, leading to misunderstanding and confusion.

The best time to talk about suicide is before children and young people are personally affected. While it may be a difficult conversation, it is better if the information comes from someone they trust than another source. Parents are more likely to relate in ways that are both sensitive and appropriate.

Are you ready?

Before initiating a conversation about suicide with your children

– Take time to process your own thoughts and feelings, particularly if you have experienced the suicide death of someone you love.
– Check your understanding of suicide and its causes. Are you able to communicate this knowledge simply, using words and concepts that are easily grasped?
– Familiarise yourself with the current suicide rates and what strategies are in place to prevent suicide.

What to say?

When talking about suicide, keep your conversation at a level that’s appropriate for your child’s developmental level. Whatever the age of the child, do your best to use simple, truthful language. Encourage the child to ask questions if they don’t understand. There are no right or wrong questions when it comes to suicide.

Middle Childhood (9-11 years) is an important time for children to gain a sense of responsibility along with their growing independence. Children in this age group are developing a better sense of who they are in the world. They begin to form opinions and are able to see the point of view of others. They have the language skills and cognitive ability to discuss a topic like ‘suicide’.

An often mentioned principle of good teaching is to use what a child knows to teach what is unknown. Most children have a limited understanding of what suicide means but they do know about death and dying. Many children, even young ones, have been exposed to the concept of death through their experiences with pets, through stories, television and a variety of other means.

Begin by inviting your child to share an experience of death. Ask questions that help the child clarify their thoughts. Discuss with the child what ‘being dead’ means.

It is important for children to understand the following about death:

• It is permanent and can’t be changed
• It means the body stops working
• It happens to everyone eventually.

Avoid euphemisms when speaking to children about death. Such as

‘He’s gone to sleep’.
‘She passed away’.
‘He went to a better place’.
‘She’s resting in peace.”

While the intention might be to protect the child, indirect language often causes confusion and uncertainty.

Using a pen-and-paper list the many ways they know that a person may die. Ask them if they have heard the word ‘suicide’ used to explain someone’s death? Clarify, if necessary, that suicide is one of the ways people die and that it is no worse than death from other causes. Death means you will never see the person alive again in this life.

Explaining suicide in a way they can understand.

Ask your child if they know what suicide means. If they don’t, explain that when a person does something to make themselves die, we call that suicide. It is difficult, even for adults, to understand why someone would want to end their life. Don’t feel as though you need to have all the answers. Children appreciate honesty. It’s OK to say to a child, ‘I don’t know – I find suicide confusing too – maybe together we can figure some of this out’.

The following explanations can help:

“People who die by suicide are often sad and upset. They can get confused and can’t find another way to solve their problems.” Conversations Matter – resources for discussing suicide

“There are many reasons why somebody would choose to end their life. Sometimes it is because of a brain illness, other times maybe because they had lots of big problems that they didn’t know how to get help for.”         Diana Sands, PhD, Director, Centre for Intense Grief

“Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person’s brain can get sick – the sickness can cause a person to feel bad inside. It also makes a person’s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so sometimes they can’t think clearly. Some people can’t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don’t understand that they don’t have to feel that way, that they can get help.”    Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

Discuss with your child what a person must be thinking or feeling to want to end their life. Think about the following statement as to  why a suicide occurs: ‘It occurs because the person’s mind is sick or stressed and causes them to make sad, painful decisions that they would not otherwise make.’

It is important to tell your child that even though people may be going through a difficult time and they can’t see an answer there are better solutions than taking your life. ‘Suicide is never a way to solve problems’.

Encourage your child to think about the people in their life they could turn to if they ever felt worried. The list might include family members, teachers, school counsellors or other trusted adults. Explain that talking to someone is a brave and healthy thing to do, and better than keeping worried, scared or sad feelings inside. Asking for help is a positive choice and definitely not a sign of weakness.

Discuss with your child the appropriateness of talking about suicide with their friends. Explain that many people still prefer not to talk about suicide. It remains a ‘taboo’ subject for many. So it is important to be respectful of others.

Let us do all we can to help our children understand suicide. And remember,

‘You can change how society thinks about suicide by providing your child with the correct information in the first place.’

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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