Suicide is a difficult topic, and discussing it with young children adds another layer of sensitivity. Dr. Joseph Kosmach, medical director of child and adolescent services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, shares some age-appropriate tips for talking with your child about suicide and what to do if notice a change in their behavior that may signal a need for professional help.
When are children old enough to understand suicide?
When a loved one passes from suicide, try to be honest with information available at the time instead of being vague to protect the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association recommend waiting until the child is 8 years old to discuss tragedies such as suicide. “It is important to be as direct as possible but appropriate for the child's age. This can include stating how the death occurred,” explains Dr. Kosmach. “For younger kids, this may mean having to explain the reality of death.”
Dr. Kosmach adds the conversation will be ongoing as you learn more about how the person died. Talk honestly about the loved one who has passed. “If known, it's OK to share that the person was living with mental illness,” says Dr. Kosmach. “Contrast the happy times of the past to the more recent struggles the loved one was experiencing.”
You should also admit what you don't know and share your questions as well. Children look to adults as to how to handle the loss of a loved one. Describe your feelings to help your child identify theirs.
Signs your child may need help coping with grief and loss
Dr. Kosmach identifies the warning signs to look out for while your child is processing the loss.
- Talk: Changes in patterns can include the person talking about killing themselves; describing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness; and sharing if they feel as if they are a burden or are experiencing unbearable pain.
- Behavior: Children may show changes in behaviors or develop new ones. These may include drug use or an increase in use; researching methods on how to end their life; isolating from family and friends; changes in sleep patterns; aggression; fatigue; giving away possessions; and saying goodbye to important people in their life.
- Mood: People considering suicide may experience depression, anxiety, irritability, shame, anger or agitation, and relief or sudden improvement in mood.
According to the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, talking about suicide does not encourage it. Having a conversation about how your child is feeling and if they are thinking about suicide can show them that you care and give them an opportunity to talk about their problems. Ask if they are feeling sad or depressed, if they are thinking about hurting or killing themselves, or if they have ever thought about it.
Resources are available for anyone needing to speak with someone.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or in Spanish
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- You Matter — a safe space for youth to discuss and share stories about mental health and wellness, created and administered by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Trevor Project — crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25
If you’re a parent of a child struggling with serious behavioral issues, Sharp Mesa Vista can help. Visit our website to learn more about Sharp Mesa Vista’s child and adolescent services, or call 858-836-8434.