How to talk to your child about suicide

October 10, 2017 by Rachael Sharman, The Conversation
It’s hard for parents to know whether, or how, they should address suicide with their children. Credit:

Unfortunately many lives are touched by suicide. And while you may want to hide the means of death from your child, this may not be possible, especially in the age of social media. This has provided a modern difficulty for practitioners in the field, and it may be hard for parents to make sure their child is getting the information they need and in a way they can understand and cope with.

The problem of contagion (especially among young people, and those in rural areas) is well documented. That is, once a takes their life, this may increase the risk of others in their network doing the same.

How then should you discuss suicide with your child? The first thing to consider is their age.

Under ten years

At this age, children legitimately may not understand that death is permanent - "can we ring him in heaven?", "who's going to feed Nana after she's buried?" are typical questions from kids this age. They likely won't understand the concept of suicide either - and on balance it's probably not constructive to introduce a topic that may be well above their heads.

However, should someone else tell your child about a suicide, and they seem to somewhat grasp it, you should be prepared to discuss it. A good rule of thumb is, if they're old enough to ask, they're old enough to know.

In terms of what to say, the simple truth will suffice.

"Mr X was very, very sad and didn't want to live anymore, but when people get that sad, their brains don't work properly and they make bad decisions. Mr X's family will be so sad about this (like we all were when Fido died), so it's just really horrible for everyone when someone makes a bad decision like that…"

There is nothing wrong at this age with pointing out the "badness" or "wrongness" of Mr X's decision. Children under ten are very black and white in their thinking, so avoid getting into complex arguments about possible shades of grey in these scenarios.

Fortunately, suicides in children under ten are extremely rare, so concerns of copycat behaviour are not as pressing.


Some considerations for adolescents are:

1) they tend to catastrophise problems in their life, and have difficulty understanding what is expected of them or what is available to help them

2) they do not have a complex or realistic view of themselves or the world they live in

3) their identity is not fully developed, leading to less self-understanding

4) they legitimately lack the brainpower to foresee long-term consequences of their actions, especially in terms of how they might affect other people. Instead they tend to live in the moment and are egocentric, impulsive and emotional in their decision-making.

In their case, discussing factual information about suicide is an excellent place to start. With teenagers you can discuss suicide as multi-factorial in its nature: people take their own lives for many different reasons, some have reasons that appear quite understandable (self-euthanasia in the case of terminal illness) others are totally baffling (no known condition or trigger).

In between those two extremes lie the common risk factors of mental illness, drugs, stress, and impulsivity.

Emphasising the transience or manageable aspects of these factors is important. Remind your teen that suicide is a permanent decision made in response to a temporary problem.

Avoid any hint of romanticising suicide, particularly glamourising the aftermath (how many people attended the funeral, the number of who showed outpourings of grief on Facebook). Romanticising has been shown by some studies to increase among adolescents. Conversely, presenting suicide in a factual light has been associated with a lower risk of imitation.

Importantly, let your teen know you are always there for them, how horrendous suicide is for those left behind, and help them to problem-solve their way to effective solutions to life's problems.

Explore further: Young people with chronic illness more likely to attempt suicide

Related Stories

Young people with chronic illness more likely to attempt suicide

August 17, 2017
Young people between the ages of 15 and 30 living with a chronic illness are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their healthy peers, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

Older adults may need better follow-up after ER screenings for suicide

August 9, 2017
According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates for men over the age of 70 are higher than in any other group of people. In 2015, almost 8,000 older adults committed suicide in the U.S., and the proportion of suicides ...

Broader firearm restrictions needed to prevent suicide deaths

July 4, 2017
Limiting firearm access only for persons with a mental health condition or those who previously attempted suicide likely is not enough to reduce suicide deaths. The brief research report is published in Annals of Internal ...

Suicide and genetics: a complicated association

April 22, 2017
Dear Mayo Clinic: Why does it seem that suicide tends to run in families? Does it have anything to do with genetics?

AAP: doctors should screen teens for suicide risk factors

June 29, 2016
(HealthDay)—Suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. teens, and health care providers should screen teen patients for suicide risks, according to a report published online June 27 in Pediatrics.

Media coverage of a celebrity suicide can cause a large-scale copycat effect

September 2, 2014
Researchers who analyzed media coverage of the suicide of a national actress in South Korea and its impact on subsequent suicides found that the number of suicide-related articles surged around 80 times in the week after ...

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.