It’s time to start talking to your children about suicide prevention.
As a parent or caregiver, it can be scary to think about bringing up the subject of suicide or self-harm with your child. There is a misconception that talking about suicide with children will “plant the idea in their heads.” In reality, open and age-appropriate conversations about suicide prevention with your child can help them feel safer and more comfortable coming to you or another trusted adult if those thoughts arise. Talking about suicide can help prevent it.
Before talking to your child about suicide, make sure you have created a safe and comfortable space. It is important to prepare some age-appropriate answers so that when your child asks you follow-up questions you know how to explain each concept in a simple and clear manner.
Adolescent and youth suicide is a serious concern starting much younger than parents may think. Being proactive in the prevention of suicidal thoughts can make a big difference.
If your child expresses thoughts of wanting to harm themselves or others, call 9-1-1 or visit the nearest emergency department.
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline:
Text any message to 9-8-8
Chat online at 988lifeline.org/chat
Crisis Text Line:
Text “HOME” to 741741
Suicide prevention conversation starters for parents and children
For many parents, starting the conversation can feel like the most difficult part. It can feel challenging to know where to begin, what to say or how to react to your children’s thoughts or questions.
The mental health experts at CHOC have put together the following suicide prevention conversation starters to help you and your child navigate an open conversation about suicide or self-harm.
These questions are meant to be guidelines; tailor them as you see fit by your child’s age and readiness.
“I want to talk to you about mental health.”
Talk about the importance of mental health with your child starting at a very young age and on a regular basis.
- Establishing a habit of mental health check-ins with your child
- Keep an eye out for any concerns early and often
- As your child matures, be more open with the subject matter
- Use these check-ins as a chance to teach your child coping skills if they’re feeling down or stressed.
“What do you know about suicide?”
Asking directly might seem scary, but it is a good way to open the door to a longer conversation. Be sure to:
- Avoid using euphemisms to talk about it
- Let them explain suicide to you in their own words
- Explain it to them in an age-appropriate manner if they are unfamiliar with it (make sure to prepare something in advance).
For young kids: Explain what suicide is in terms they will understand. You could say:
- Sometimes when people feel very sad or are hurting a lot, they decide to hurt themselves or not to live anymore.
- Have you heard about that happening before?
- How does that make you feel?
- Have you ever felt like you don’t want to be alive anymore?
“What are your thoughts about suicide?”
Explore your child’s thoughts and questions. You might ask:
- What do you think happens after someone dies?
- How do you feel about someone taking their own life? Do you think it’s wrong?
- How do you think society views someone who takes their own life?
- What do you think happens after someone dies?
- How does your/our religion view suicide?
Older kids and teens might also ask you about your thoughts regarding suicide. If so, tell them. Children value adults who can be honest and open and not hide things.
For young kids: Explore the concept openly. You might ask:
- Why do you think someone might want to hurt themselves?
- Have you ever felt this way?
- How does that make you feel?
Walking through age-appropriate scenarios and role-playing feelings can be a helpful tool to talk about big or difficult feelings. It can also help you teach your child healthy ways to cope.
“What do you hear about suicide at school or from your friends?”
Asking what kids hear about suicide can help take some of the pressure off of the child answering for themselves right away. You may also invite a conversation about any friends your child is worried about or help to dispel any misconceptions they’ve heard. This is also a good way for parents to gauge what young kids know or might have heard about suicide.
“How do you think you would react to feeling sad, hopeless, angry, stressed, overwhelmed or anxious? What are some negative thoughts you’ve been having?”
Having conversations about difficult emotions before your child has them can help them develop stress relief and coping skills. Explain to your child that everyone experiences good and bad thoughts, as well as good and bad days, and that it is important to learn how to respond to these good or bad experiences and ask for help.
“You are not alone. I have felt that way before too.”
Assure your child that you understand their different emotions (sadness, hopelessness, anger, stress, anxiety, etc.). Asking them to talk about all of their different emotions teaches them that you are approachable and comfortable with even their most difficult or biggest feelings.
How to react to your child if they express thoughts of suicide or self-harm
It is normal to worry about what a conversation might bring up for your child, especially when it comes to topics like suicide in adolescence. Try to remain calm, open, caring and honest as you talk with your child about suicide prevention.
- Try not to get angry. It is natural to experience lots of strong emotions as a caregiver when your child tells you about these things, and sometimes children will not share their negative thoughts out of fear of making their parent angry, upset or even sad.
- Try not to lecture or scold. Instead, ask your child follow-up questions, and ask them what they would like from you at that moment. Maybe they just want a hug and to hear everything is going to be OK. Or, maybe they want to be taken to a professional for further evaluation. Help your child communicate their needs without pressuring them.
- Keep an eye out for suicide warning signs/triggers.
- Come up with some good coping skills you and/or your child can do to help with managing or preventing suicidal thoughts.
- Prepare a plan of action and have some emergency contacts handy (911, local police and fire department, and a list of local emergency rooms).
- Safety proof your home. Keeping the home environment safe and restricting access to means of self-harm (e.g., securing/locking up medications, sharp objects, alcohol, firearms/weapons, chemicals) is important, especially with children who tend to exhibit impulsivity.
- Ask if your child plans to act on these thoughts of wanting to die and ask if they know how they are planning to die. If your child states that they do have a plan to die, consider taking them to the nearest emergency room or contacting 911 or a crisis hotline to receive immediate support.
- If you are not sure what to do or even how to have this conversation, contact a professional and ask for guidance.
Resources curated by the mental health team at CHOC on suicide prevention, such as tips for teens, parents and friends of those at risk.
Keep in mind: Effective communication can help suicidal or self-harming children feel safe
The way a parent responds to a child’s negative thoughts is extremely important when talking to children about suicide. Learning about different styles of communication, as well as the style your child tends to use, can help you steer the conversation in a useful way.
When learning about a child’s suicidal or negative thoughts, some parents tend to lead with anger and panic, both of which can be fear-based emotions.
Kind, compassionate and calm communication can strengthen the bond between a parent and child, particularly in discussions about youth suicide prevention. This approach helps the child feel safer and more supported, and, in turn, more willing to go to their parent for help during moments of suicide ideation.
Not only does kind and compassionate communication portray positive role modeling to a child, but it also helps regulate the child’s distress during a scary time and lets the child know their parent loves them without hesitation or judgment.
The four communication styles
There are four types of communication styles: assertive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and passive:
- Assertive. Assertive communication style is appropriately honest, direct, self-enhancing, expressive, self-confident, and empathetic to all emotions involved. This is the ideal style of communication when discussing sensitive topics like suicide in adolescence, as it is non-threatening and mindful.
- Aggressive. Aggressive communication style is described as inappropriately honest, direct, expressive, attacking, blaming, controlling, and self-enhancing at the expense of others. Aggressive communication can lead to verbal and sometimes physical altercations and is an unhealthy style of communication.
- Passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive communicators tend to be emotionally dishonest, indirect, self-denying at first, and self-enhancing at the expense of others later. Passive-aggressive communicators tend to have difficulty expressing their true needs and having their needs met. This can increase frustration between both parties as it can be the cause of tension and animosity.
- Passive. Passive communicators are considered emotionally dishonest, indirect, inhibited, self-denying, blaming and apologetic. While passive and aggressive communicators have some things in common, ultimately those who are passive tend to take on the blame. Everyone communicates differently and being aware of this can help all parties involved.
If you can use assertive communication to guide a conversation about youth suicide, you will be better positioned to help your child understand the seriousness of the conversation while also expressing your love and support for them. You will also have a better understanding of how to respond to your child should they share their negative thoughts with you.
Remember, children are humans, and they can have good and bad days, just as adults do. Be kind, loving and gentle. Always assure your child that you love them and that it is your job to keep them safe and protected. Let them know they can come to you with anything, including their struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts, so that you can help keep them safe.
By Nazli Boroshan, CHOC mental health therapist. Nazli is an Associate Clinician Social Worker working with the Mental Health Emergency Services team at CHOC. She focuses on crisis management and crisis stabilization in the Emergency Department. Her other professional experience includes work in other crisis settings, such as psychiatric and medical hospitals, and she is trained in Family Based Crisis Intervention (FBCI), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Trauma Informed Care and Motivational Interviewing.