Talking to kids about suicide can be challenging. However, creating a safe space to talk about suicide can save a child’s life. Multiple studies show that asking about suicide is not harmful and often empowering. You won’t put the idea into their heads and if a child has been struggling with thoughts of suicide, knowing that a concerned adult is willing to have an open conversation is often a relief.
Here are some steps that can make a big difference for a young person and get them on the pathway to living an emotionally healthy life:
- Do not wait for a crisis to discuss suicide. Many times, we respond to a child when there is a crisis, but part of preventing suicide and being aware of mental health issues before things become overwhelming. This can mean asking about how they are doing at the dinner table or during car rides and letting them know you will be there for them no matter how difficult their struggles may be.
- Check in regularly and ask your child directly how they are doing and if they have ever had thoughts about ending their life.
- Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with “yes/no” or “IDK” to allow for a deeper conversation.
- Provide emotional space to talk. Many children believe they shouldn’t show their emotions to “be strong” but research has shown that addressing difficult emotions head on can reduce how intense and how long they last. Allow them to share whatever they are feeling and normalize all emotions.
- Look for changes in mood or behavior that might be a warning sign that something is wrong. For example, if your child seems really down, they stop doing things they normally enjoy, or you notice significant changes in eating or sleeping.
- Ask directly about suicidal thoughts. Even if your child is not struggling with suicide or depression, you can model for your child that it is good to talk about serious emotional concerns with trusted adults and important to reach out to friends to have these conversations, too.
It is important to remember talking to our kids about suicide is the right thing to do. One of the best things you can do is give your child the power to talk about mental health concerns and topics as challenging as suicide without shutting the door. Even if your child is doing well, this powerful opportunity helps your child see it is OK to be emotionally open and could help them talk openly with friends.
WATCH: Talking to Children Under 12 About Suicide
Peer to Peer Conversations
What happens when a child asks, “What do I do if a friend is struggling with suicide?”
- Encourage your child to tell their friend that they care about them and acknowledge that they are hurting.
- After their friend knows they are being listened to and supported, the next step is to ask specifically if they are thinking about suicide or have tried to kill themselves.
- This should be done in a compassionate way free of judgement.
- If they say “yes” or even “I’m not sure,” a trusted adult should be told right away. Never leave someone alone if they are showing warning signs of suicide.
There are many ways loved ones can help youth get support when they need it. This involves timely treatment, building connections, helping other people know what to say when a family member or friend is struggling and having a safety plan in place to help get through a crisis.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, go to the nearest emergency room or call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.