Talking to Your Kids About Suicide

Posted on June 22, 2018

With the recent widespread newscasts on the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and food and travel guru Anthony Bourdain comes the big question: How can parents discuss and explain suicide to children? This discussion is undoubtedly the most difficult one you can have—no matter how old your kids are. Here are a few tips that you can tailor as you see fit:

  1. Define the word “suicide,” age appropriately, in a wider discussion of death. While most dictionaries define suicide as “the act of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally,” that might be too harsh to convey to children of any age. If your child is between the ages of 7 and 12, you could define suicide more simply as “taking one’s own life.” If your child is a tween, teen, adolescent, or young adult, they undoubtedly have a somewhat clearer understanding of death, and opening up the discussion about it, while never easy, is necessary. Letting your children know that death—like birth—is very much a part of human existence will open the door to a discussion. When it comes to talking about suicide, lead with courage and fact sharing instead of fear. Of course, talking about suicide raises the question: Why?
  2. The answer to why is multifaceted and murky. When my son was in eighth grade, one of his classmates hung herself with a belt. The school provided my 14-year-old and his peers with counseling and education on asphyxiation, the dangers of choking, and “the pass-out challenge,” but dealing with the why fell into my lap. Letting children of any age know that suicide is committed by people who have mental health illnesses or a drug-related problem sends the important message that suicide is not “normal.” That’s what I told my son, adding that his peer had a history of depression and anxiety that were made worse by other family problems, that she was sad for a long time without support or outlet. That also gave me a chance to talk with him about how important it is to manage one’s emotions.
  3. Be honest and open, age appropriately. At times like this, our kids rely on us. If you don’t have an answer to a question they ask, let them know that it’s a good question, and you will research the answer for them. Being honest and open will open up the doors to communication, and the discussions will help children sort out their emotions. Whether it’s a normal death or a suicide, there will always be emotions attached to it.
  4. Allow children to express their emotions fully. When emotions go unaddressed, they park themselves deep inside our psyche and plant fear. While education and information deepen understanding and reasoning, emotional expression addresses the underlying fear, which otherwise would bury itself in the subconscious only to find an exit elsewhere. Facing the fear and talking about it is of the utmost importance. Dealing with the Feeling, an emotional intelligence tool, is one I highly recommend for every parent. The steps are simple and the results profound.
  5. Revisit the topic in a few weeks by asking your child how they are feeling about it now. While time is a big healer, returning to the subject later will ensure a less emotional discussion and let you gauge how your child is handling exposure to the topic.

Truly, there is no easy way to have a discussion on death, let alone suicide. Nonetheless, it is a definite opportunity to establish communication and deepen and strengthen the parent-child bond. Such discussions let your child know that you are always there for them – building trust, empathy, compassion and, most of all, resilience. As philosopher Alain de Botton said, “A good half of the art of living is resilience.” In resilience lies courage and self-confidence—both of which we want to nurture in our children.

For additional support, you can also refer to the Society of Prevention of Teen Suicide.