How to Talk with Your Child About Suicide

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in children and young adults. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported suicide was the third leading cause of death for ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34.

Suicide has become a frequent topic in the media and popular culture. Even if your child has not watched specific TV shows about suicide, the odds are that he or she has a friend or acquaintance that has considered and/or talked about suicidal behavior.

Talking to your child about suicide is important, even if it may be an uncomfortable and challenging discussion. Consider the following tips when beginning the conversation with your child.

  1. Pick a time when you have your child’s full attention, preferably when you have at least 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted time. It is important to ensure that you are not distracted (by work or a younger sibling, for example) and are able to focus completely on the conversation. Car rides are a great time to start a discussion.
  2. Decide how you want to start the conversation. Open-ended questions are a great way to start a dialogue. For example, you can ask about a TV program that addressed suicide, what they think about suicide, or if they have they heard anything about suicide. Try to remain neutral when forming your questions. It is best to avoid starting with, “You’ve never thought about suicide, right?” or “I don’t need to worry about suicide, do I?” These questions could contribute to a child feeling that there is something wrong with saying that he or she has thought about suicide.
  3. Keep the discussion going by listening first and then asking relevant follow-up questions. It is not time to give advice or lecture. It is important to let them speak their mind and also acknowledge this can be tough to talk about.
  4. Do not be afraid to ask direct questions like, “Have you ever thought about suicide?” or “Have any of your friends talked about hurting themselves or wanting to die?” Suicidal thoughts are more common in teenagers. Per the CDC, 17 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months, so be prepared that your child may answer yes to these questions.
  5. Try not to overreact if your child answers yes to your questions. This is an important opportunity to ask follow up questions about when the thoughts occurred, how often they have happened, what was going on, did they ever do anything to act on the thoughts, was there a specific plan and how they are feeling now. You may find that they have not thought about suicide in a while or it was after a major stressor in their life.
  6. Consider some of the risk factors for suicide when talking with your child. Has their mood changed recently? Do they seem withdrawn from their friends and/or past interests? Is their behavior more erratic or impulsive? Are they using drugs and/or alcohol? Do they seem more secretive? These can be indicators that your child is at risk for suicide and may warrant further discussion.
  7. Please remember that asking about suicide does not put the idea in a child’s head. Research has repeatedly shown that it is better to ask about it. Neglecting to ask can contribute to a child or adolescent believing that it is a taboo topic.

If you are concerned that your child is at risk, UPMC Children's Community Pediatrics can help. Your pediatrician can connect you with support. We have a team of trained behavioral health therapists at UPMC CCP that can provide further assessment and treatment.

In addition to services offered at UPMC CCP, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and re:solve Crisis Network of UPMC (within Allegheny County) can offer immediate support in a crisis. Any person can call these resources, even if they are just worried about a loved one.

re:solve Crisis Network can be reached 24/7 at 1-888-7-YOU CAN (1-888-796-8226).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available 24/7 at 1-800- 273-8255.

– Megan McGraw, LCSW, UPMC Children's Community Pediatrics Behavioral Health Therapist