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Talking to a Child About Suicide

Tips for starting a conversation with teens and younger children about suicide.

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Use this brief fact sheet to help start a conversation with a Veteran Who may be in distress.


Talking to a Child About Suicide

Having a loved one attempt or die by suicide is incredibly painful for anyone, and for children it can be an especially difficult experience. A young person’s ability to recover from a traumatic event almost always depends on the level of support and counseling they receive thereafter. With the right amount of help and guidance from loved ones, mental health professionals, and other trusted adults, children can learn to cope with the grief of losing or almost losing a family member to suicide. 

How to Help a Child Cope With a Loved One’s Suicide or Suicide Attempt

Suicide can be confusing for children. A child may not understand what mental illness is or how depression, illness, and life circumstances can make people do things they otherwise would never do. In addition, children ages 4 to 8 may not be able to articulate their feelings or discuss the situation.

Here are some ways you can gently initiate a conversation with a child who has lost or almost lost a family member to suicide: 

  • When talking about a loved one’s suicide attempt or death, pick a private place where the child feels comfortable and will feel free to talk. Start with the child’s understanding of the situation. “I want to talk to you about what happened to Dad. What do you remember from last night?”
  • Describe what has happened. Be sure to use language that is simple and general. Details are not as important as a general sense of what has occurred. “Mom is in the hospital because she is hurt.” If the child can understand more: “Mom was feeling very sad and hurt herself.” Also inform the child about emotional struggles. “Mom has been feeling very sad lately.”
  • Sometimes children feel as though a suicide attempt is their fault, that they did something wrong, or that it will happen to them or other adults in their life. Ask them if they feel worried about any of these situations and address these feelings. “I want to you to know that this is not your fault, and Mom loves you very much.”
  • Be aware of your own feelings and the way that you are communicating to the child. For example, the child could mistake an angry tone of voice to mean that you are angry with them or the family member who attempted suicide
  • Assure children that their family member is getting treatment or care if the person is still alive. “Dad is in the hospital getting help.”
  • Provide consistency. Let the child know that their daily routine will stay the same
  • Encourage the child to express their feelings. Help them to know that their reactions are normal and expected. Ask if they have questions. “What do you think about what I just told you?” Sometimes it’s easier to draw images of feelings than to talk about them. You may ask, “Would you like to draw a picture of your feelings? Do you have any questions about Grandpa and what happened?”
  • Allow the child not to talk if they would rather not, and to choose the people they talk to. “If you don’t want to talk about it now, that’s OK. We can talk about it later, or you can talk to Grandma too.”
  • Get other people involved (friends, mental health professionals, or clergy) to provide support. This will benefit you and the child. Let the child know you are getting support too. “This is something that makes me sad, and I need to get some help from my [clergy, friends, doctor] too.”
  • Reassure the child that you are in charge and in control and that they can come to you with concerns and questions
  • Consider suggesting a special activity to keep the child busy, active, or involved with a familiar project. However, it is important to avoid encouraging ongoing distractions or avoidance of feelings. Help create a connection between the child and their family member through this activity. Tell them when they can expect to see their family member again. “Would you like to draw a picture for Dad while he is in the hospital for the next few days?”
  • During this time, offer extra support, affection, and attention, such as hugs and time spent together

What a Child May Feel After Losing a Loved One to Suicide

  • Abandoned
  • Responsible
  • Afraid
  • Guilty
  • Sad
  • Embarrassed
  • Confused
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • In denial
  • Numb

Whatever feelings a child expresses after losing a loved one, remind them that it’s OK to let it out. Not sharing their feelings is OK too. Don’t force a child to tell you how they feel or tell them how they should feel.