How To Talk to Your Child About Suicide

How To Talk to Your Child About Suicide

Suicide is preventable — and the first step to preventing it is to start talking about it. Although talking to your child about suicide is often uncomfortable or challenging, it's an important conversation to have. Consider the following tips when beginning this conversation with your child.

Your Timing

Choose a time when you'll have your child's full attention for at least five to 10 uninterrupted minutes. Focus completely on the conversation and eliminate distractions: Put your cell phone or tablet away, and turn off the TV.

Your Opener

Decide how you'll start the conversation. Open-ended questions are a helpful way to start a dialogue. For instance, you can ask about a TV program that addresses suicide. You can also ask what they think about suicide, or if they've heard anything about suicide or talked about it with their friends.

Ask Questions

Remain neutral when forming your questions.

Avoid questions like:

  • "You've never thought about suicide, right?"
  • "I don't need to worry about suicide, do I?"

These yes or no questions could make your child feel as if there's something wrong with saying that they have thought about suicide.

Try direct questions like:

  • "Have you ever thought about suicide?"
  • "Have any of your friends ever talked about hurting themselves or wanting to die?"

Asking about suicide does not put the idea into a child's head

Suicidal thoughts are more common in teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% of high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months. Be prepared that your child may answer "yes" to these questions.

Listening and Following Up

Try not to overreact if your child answers "yes" to your questions. Listen closely and ask follow-up questions to continue the discussion. Now is not time to give advice or lecture. Let your child speak their mind and acknowledge that this subject is often hard to talk about.

Use this important opportunity to ask follow-up questions, such as:

  • When did these thoughts occur?
  • How often have they happened?
  • What was going on?
  • Did you ever try to act on the thoughts?
  • Was there a specific plan?
  • How are you feeling now?

You may find that they have not thought about suicide for a while or that it was after a major stressor in their life.

Watch for Warning Signs

Reflect on your child's risk factors for suicide when talking with them. Note any warning signs, such as:

  • Refusing to eat or eating constantly.
  • Frequent nightmares.
  • Changes in school performance.
  • Sudden or extreme mood changes.
  • Feeling extremely sad.
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to others.
  • Recurrent agitation or aggression.
  • Excessive worrying.
  • Avoidance of sleep, school, or social outings.
  • Self-injury or suicidal behaviors.
  • Uncharacteristic behavior.

Look out for situational signs such as:

  • Recent breakup with a boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other.
  • Any event that may cause public embarrassment or shame.
  • Bullying, whether online or face to face.
  • Failure to achieve or reach an important goal or milestone.
  • Significant changes to the family unit or relationships within the family.

These indicators can mean that your child is at risk for suicide and may warrant further discussion.

Where To Turn if Your Child Needs Help

If you see one of these symptoms in your child, it is usually not a cause for alarm. However, it is time to seek professional help when:

  • Multiple symptoms appear or symptoms stay over a long period of time.
  • Symptoms interfere with your child's ability to function, such as refusal to go to school, neglect of personal hygiene, declining grades, lack or loss of friends, troubled relationships, running away, self-injury, or substance abuse.
  • Your child talks about wanting to die and has thoughts of or a plan for suicide.

If you have concerns that your child is at risk, contact your child's primary care provider for support.

Suicide Prevention Resources

If your child is facing a suicidal emergency, call 911 immediately.

If you are unsure on where to turn for help, call, text, or chat 988.

Call 988 if you, your child, or a loved one are in distress and thinking about suicide. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (previously the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) is a national network of more than 200 crisis centers.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers trained crisis counselors 24/7/365. They can help people experiencing mental health-related distress, including thoughts of suicide or any other kind of emotional distress.

More Suicide Prevention Hotlines

Suicide prevention hotlines include: