Yes, You Need to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide — Here's Your Step-by-Step Guide

CW: suicide

It seems that the entire United States is haunted by the news of Stephen “tWitch” Boss‘s untimely death at age 40 by suicide. But what’s even more haunting is the fact that, just two days before his last moment, he posted a video to TikTok doing what he loved to do: dancing, smiling, entertaining. On Instagram, he posted a dance with his wife Allison Holker in front of the Christmas tree, featuring a cameo by their dog, looking every bit the vibrant, captivating person that he was — epitomizing joy. And then … he was gone.

A post shared by Allison Holker (@allisonholker)

Whether your kids followed tWitch, or are just on social media in general, they’ve likely heard the news. As a parent, it feels wrong not to say anything about such a monumental tragedy, to offer some words of wisdom or condolence or something — but what do you say to make your kids understand when you don’t understand it yourself?

Knowing how to talk to your kids about suicide is a tool that, unfortunately, every parent needs to have. tWitch was not the first high-profile person, and will not be the last, to die by suicide. But tragically, it isn’t only the celebrity deaths that our kids will encounter in their lifetime; according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020, which is the last available reported data, nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide, with a heartbreaking total of 1.20 million suicide attempts overall. With sobering statistics like these, it’s very likely that our kids — whether in childhood or later on down the line — will encounter it at some point. And as parents, it’s our job to equip them with the means to cope, so we asked a handful of experts for their best advice.

Nobody enjoys talking to their kids about tough subjects, but it’s so important — and the first thing to understand is that talking about a hard topic isn’t going to suddenly give them ideas.

“Discussing suicide with your child will not suddenly plant the concept in their head,” Katie Adam,  Mental Health First Aid Trainer & Psychologist at Skills Training Group, tells SheKnows. In fact, speaking up helps remove the stigma and make it easier for them to address: “Breaking the silence on the subject may help your child reframe the problem, tell you what they think, and show you care about your child’s mental health.”

Jeff Temple, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Director of UTMB’s Center for Violence Prevention, echoes this: “Know that it is okay to talk about suicide with kids. In fact, it is essential, especially if you know they know someone, or a celebrity, who has died by suicide — or they themselves are having mental health problems.” That last bit is particularly critical, he says, given the statistics. As for the natural hesitation to broach such a subject with our kids, he tells SheKnows, “Talking about suicide does not cause suicide or in any way increase the risk for suicidality. In contrast, talking about it — even if difficult — communicates to your child that you are a safe place for talking about their emotions and thoughts.”

“Unfortunately, suicide is one topic that carries a lot of stigma and misinformation,” adds Melissa Lunardini, MA, MBA, FT, childhood bereavement specialist and Head of Bereavement at Help Texts. “Because of that, it is always best to have conversations about heavy topics like suicide come from the family because children know that family is usually a trusted and well-intentioned source.”

Dr. Temple suggests approaching the conversation based on the child’s age — but being transparent, even if they’re young. “No matter what age, kids are smart. Much smarter than we give them credit for. So be honest with them,” he says.

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“The reality is that kids are likely to have thoughts and questions about death and suicide much earlier than we might expect,” says Embark Behavioral Health’s Ryan Price, M.A., LPC, MAC at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. “Each child is different, but a good guideline is to begin talking about suicide at around the same age they become able to understand the concept of death. If your child is old enough to begin asking questions about suicide, it’s not too early to answer their questions and start having conversations about it in developmentally-appropriate ways. It is important to not let our discomfort around this painful topic prevent us from talking about suicide with our kids.”

In terms of how you tell them, environment matters too; Lunardini tells SheKnows that parents should find a safe, neutral, and low-stimulation setting. “This could be the living room, at the meal table, or somewhere outside that is quiet. Try to avoid places like the car or bedroom,” she says.

Let Them Lead

When talking about suicide with your kids — or any difficult topic, for that matter — it is important to read their cues. “Let them lead the conversation,” says Dr. Temple. “If they have more questions, answer them. If they’re ready to be done talking about it, let the conversation be over with.” Also important to note: it’s OK to tell your kids when you don’t have a concrete answer to a question.

“Remember that it’s OK not to have all of the answers,” says Lunardini. “Simply say something like ‘that is a very important question, I don’t have the answer to that right now. We may or may not learn more in the future. If I learn more, I will share it with you.’” 

For Young Kids: Keep it Brief

For very young children, Dr. Temple advises, keep your conversations short and simple: “Let the child know that the person had a disease in the brain and that they died. That it’s very sad.”

For Kids Ages 8-10: Keep it Brief, But Answer More “Why”

Once your child is a little older, says Dr. Temple, they can handle a bit more detail — but for kids 8-10, brevity is still best. Explain that the person had depression or substance abuse problems and wasn’t able to get the help they needed.

Alternately, comparing it to physical illness may help kids get a better grasp because that’s something they understand, says Lunardini: “Just like people can get sick in their bodies, like having a pain in your stomach, people can also get sick in their brain. This can cause them to feel really lonely and sad for a long time. Sometimes it can even feel really painful. When people feel like this, they sometimes think about hurting themselves or even ending their life to stop the pain. This is called suicide. Do you have any questions?”

For Tweens Ages 11-13: Have the Important Conversations

“By this age, they know about mental health, have friends dealing with mental health issues, or they themselves are struggling. Thus, this is an opportune time to talk about all kinds of mental health, including suicide,” Dr. Temple suggests. “Make this a 2-way conversation. Ask what they’ve heard about suicide. Ask if they have feelings about it.”

For Teenagers: Help Them Know Where to Turn

For teens, Dr. Temple tells SheKnows, the conversation should move toward providing them with the resources to get help for themselves or a friend who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. “Conversation is the key word here,” he says. “This is not a one-and-done talk. It should be had often —when they express sad thoughts, when there’s a suicide on their favorite television show, or when there’s a suicide of a celebrity.”

So what resources can we point them toward? The easiest to remember is to simply dial 988: it’s the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, and is there 24-7 to help people who are in crisis or emotional distress. There’s also the Crisis Text Line; simply text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor who can provide a listening ear and further resources for assistance. Both of these services are free of charge, available anywhere in the U.S., and can be the different between thoughts and actions.

No Matter What Their Age …

“It is important to help our kids understand that painful emotions do change over time, even when it might not seem like they will. We can teach kids about the impermanence of emotions by talking about and exploring real-life examples of times when they felt angry or sad and then noticed that those emotions changed over time,” Price tells SheKnows.

“Remind your child that suicide and depression are not defects of character,” advises Adam. “It should also not be perceived as selfish or weak.” Lunardini adds we should also remind them that people who die by suicide often understand that they have a lot of people who love and care for them, “But because their brain is unwell, they can often think and feel as though their loved ones would be better off without them or they may just not be able to handle the intensity of the pain that they are in. This faulty thinking is what can lead people to die from suicide.” 

Also, we can take the opportunity to educate our kids on choosing words carefully when they speak about suicide. “Children will often use language for shock value. Encouraging children to be sensitive around this topic will help them understand how to talk about it moving forward,” says Lunardini. “It can be helpful to say something like, ‘When someone dies by suicide it can be really hard on their loved ones. You can always come to be with your questions about suicide, but please be careful about what you say to others. If you’re not sure, come to me first and we can talk about it.’”

How to Wrap Up the Conversation

Whether it’s been a brief discussion or a long talk, how you wrap it up is critical. Lunardini suggests ending with something like this: “If you ever feel like your brain is telling you something similar, it is important to let another trusted person know. There are so many people in your life who love you and want to support you no matter how tough life feels at times.”

How to Help if Your Kids Are Upset or Grieving

Even a celebrity death can make kids feel like they’ve lost someone they know. “It’s important to offer ways for them to memorialize the person who died. This can help with children feeling helpless over the death,” Lunardini says. “Offering up suggestions like lighting a candle or making a donation in their honor, saying a prayer, or even doing something fun like a TikTok dance in their honor can help a child feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way and expressing their grief.” 

Price tells SheKnows that parents should normalize grief and allow kids the space and time to feel whatever emotions arise following the loss of someone important to them. “Create opportunities for your child to make meaning of that relationship and process what that person meant to them. Following the death of a celebrity, this could mean doing an art project together like a collage or poster board about that person’s life and how their life impacted your child. If the person was someone they personally knew or were close to, talking about places or activities they used to enjoy together and creating an intentional day to honor that person’s life and impact could be healing.” The most important thing, he says, is to talk with your child, help them understand they’re not alone in carrying this loss, and be emotionally responsive to their needs and emotions following a loss.

Dr. Temple stresses that being there for your kids and letting them take the lead when they’re sad or grieving is valuable — but it also highlights the importance of having this type of conversation with your kids early and often. “While you can absolutely help at a moment’s notice, this is where establishing a trusting relationship and being honest with them in previous conversations come in to play,” he says. “They should see you as a safe and open person to talk with. And if that’s just not you, that’s OK too, but only if you make sure they have someone in their life they can talk to.”

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a young LGBTQ person and need to talk to someone, call The Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis hotline for youth at 1-866-488-7386 and/or The Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. 

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