Over the years I’ve had to talk to my children about a topic no parent wants to discuss with their kids. Suicide. As a psychologist, I have a clinical understanding of suicide, but as a parent I know it’s hard to explain to your children why someone would try to take their own life.
I have struggled with finding the right words myself, especially with a tragedy of such magnitude. Since I wrestle with these feelings, I am sure that you might too, so I wanted to share some tips that might help you in your conversations with your own children:
Gather your courage to talk to your children. As parents, we want to protect our children from terrible things. But it is also our obligation as parents to be honest with our kids when tragedy does strike. My rule of thumb is that if the bad news is something I think they will hear about from other children, then I want to be the one who talks to them about it first. I would rather that my children hear heartbreaking news from me, in a way that is personal and takes into account their feelings and questions, than from a child on the playground who may not provide the correct or appropriate information.
When talking about suicide, you’ll want to keep your conversation at a level that’s appropriate for your child’s developmental level. The younger the child the more vague and short your descriptions can be, while older children will have more questions and want more details. Be honest if you don’t have all the answers to their questions by saying “I don’t know” or “We may never know.” I can say with assurance though that hiding what is going on from your children if it is publicly known will do more harm than good in the long run. You’d rather have your children know that you are a person that they can talk to about tragedies, rather than a person who hides from them.
Explain suicide in a way they can understand. One of the hardest things for children to understand is why someone would try to take their own life. Kids usually have experienced the death of a loved one to an accident or illness. While difficult to cope with, there are usually clear answers to how or why the person died. When talking about suicide, you can explain what depression is and then tell your children that sometimes people feel so sad or upset that their mind is in a sense suffering from an illness. Even though the person may have looked happy or good on the outside, they had a sickness in their mind that made them not be able to cope with their sadness in a way that was healthy. With kids, I have often compared it to a seemingly healthy person dying suddenly from a heart attack. Although they looked healthy on the outside, something was going wrong on the inside that we did not know about.
Be sure to include in your explanation that there was nothing that your child did that caused this or anything that they could have done to prevent it. Assure your child that the person loved them very much and that they knew of your child’s love for them.
One explanation that I like from Suicide Awareness Voices of Education is “Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person’s brain can get very sick – the sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a person’s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so sometimes they can’t think clearly. Some people can’t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don’t understand that they don’t have to feel that way, that they can get help.”
Encourage them to talk to trusted adults. After learning of a suicide attempt, children will naturally have questions and want to talk more about what’s going on. Encourage your children to talk with you, their teachers, school counselors, or other trusted adults. When one of my kids was seven, I reminded her that if she had questions then she needed to ask an adult, not another child. When I asked her why, she said “Because kids don’t always know what they’re talking about.” Even she understands that! As adults, we don’t always know what we’re talking about either, but we can respond in a way that is both sensitive and appropriate to the situation.