How to Talk to a Child About Suicide

How to Talk to a Child About Suicide

A girl talks with her mom about suicide. They appear to be outdoors, possibly by a school.

One of the most frightening, confusing, and heartbreaking things a parent can hear is that their child is considering suicide. It can be hard to know how to talk to a child about suicide. You may think that talking about suicide could make things worse. It won’t. This is a time for action. This is a time for a serious discussion with your child. Suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death for those between 10 and 34 years old. The clock could be ticking.

The worst thing you can do is dismiss suicidal ideation as just a phase. While it could be a cry for attention, it could also be more than a threat. You should consider seeking professional help for suicide prevention but need to quickly develop an understanding of what your child is thinking and what they might actually do.

If you’re a parent, guardian, or teacher who’s unsure how to talk to a child about suicide, we’re here to help. We collaborated with Rebecca Stewart, LCSW, a therapist at Embrace U, to create a six-step guide for parents to use with a child who may be at risk of suicide. Use this guide to help not only assess your child’s risk of suicide but also as a way to discuss the importance of mental health and asking for help.

Expert Advice On Talking to Child About Suicide
(6 Steps)

Step 1: Be Direct and Ask Closed-Ended Questions

Jump right into the conversation with clear, yes-or-no questions.

“You need to be very direct when you say, ‘Are you planning to kill yourself?’… It’s a yes or no,” Stewart said.” If so, is there a plan, and what is that plan specifically?”

The conversation is about clarity and treating the subject with the seriousness it demands.

“You always want to make sure that they understand how serious the threat of suicide is,” Stewart said.

Step 2: Use Age-Appropriate Language

Once you’ve asked direct questions, choose words your child or teen can relate to. Avoid questions or phrases that might go over their head.

“If you use words above their vocabulary, they may not fully grasp what you’re talking about,” Stewart said.

This isn’t just about the words you use; it’s about creating a connection. Stewart advised, “If they’re a little bit older, and you treat them like they’re much younger, they might think, ‘I’m not going to tell this person anything.’”

Stewart said meeting children at their age level and developmental stage helps them feel seen, understood, and respected. She recommends a tailored approach for younger kids.

“With a 10-year-old, I’m going to explain more about exactly why suicide is so serious,” Stewart explained. “Their brain hasn’t yet developed that full capability. So you have to break it down in a way that shows them why it’s a bad idea because they may not connect themselves.”

She offers this perspective for older teens: “With 17 or 18-year-olds, it’s more about listening to why they think those thoughts are coming up and then problem-solving around those reasons. Their brains are more developed. With that, you can usually reason more easily. You can show them your perspective if you understand where they’re coming from.”

Matching your language with your child’s age and comprehension level is necessary. It fosters genuine, impactful conversation around a sensitive topic.

Read more: What is Passive Suicidal Ideation vs Active?

Step 3: Measure Their Response and Be Empathetic

Actively listening to a child’s answers is important. The goal is to show them empathy while developing an understanding of why they may be considering suicide.

“You want to figure out why and be as empathetic as you can while also holding the line that suicide is not going to be okay because it will end up hurting many people,” Stewart explained.

She also stressed the importance of clear communication in your responses.

“You want to tell them exactly why that scares and worries you.”

Create a space where they feel seen, heard, understood, and respected. Together, you can help them understand the severity of these thoughts and create a safety plan for their well-being.

“We have to talk them through why that’s too serious of an action,” Stewart said. “That’s part of our job, to explain that and make sure they understand.”

Step 4: Create a Safety Plan

Once you’ve established age-appropriate communication, creating an actionable plan is important. Collaborating with your child could empower them to engage. Stewart says this plan can be their go-to when facing overwhelming or suicidal thoughts.

“If it’s just thoughts, then we say…here’s what we can do to either distract from them, change them, or reframe them,” she explained.

It’s recommended for children to be active participants in this process. Stewart suggests asking them, “What brought this on?” or “How can I help you stay safe?

These questions give them a voice, allowing them to think and participate actively in shaping their safety plan. Studies show that safety plans have been known to reduce suicide attempts.

Step 5: Remove Access to Harmful Items

Once you have a safety plan for your child, it’s critical to ensure their immediate surroundings are safe. This means removing any items such as medications or weapons that could be used in a suicide attempt.

“If they have a specific action plan, always remove the ability to follow through on that action as much as possible,” Stewart said. “If they say they plan on stabbing themselves, you should remove all knives or sharp objects.”

Following this, she suggests double-checking for alternative methods.

“Ask them again, now that this plan has been taken off the table, ‘Do you have any other secondary plans?’ and follow that same process.”

Be proactive. Removing potential hazards could be a lifesaving decision.

Step 6: Seek Professional Help

Following a safety plan and securing your environment, the last vital step is seeking expert intervention. Consider getting treatment for suicidal ideation. Stewart says that leaning on professional expertise can help you cover all your bases, especially if the situation escalates.

“I would take them to a mental health professional,” she said.

If you need to leave them alone and believe that they are at high risk, get some help.

“That could be calling 911, then sitting with them and watching them and preventing them from taking any actions that could hurt them until help arrives,” Stewart said. “They will talk you through their process and send someone out to check on your child, then decide if they need to go to the hospital or be put in a safe space for a temporary amount of time.”

For parents looking for immediate avenues, Stewart suggests taking them to the emergency room, where staff can conduct an assessment and connect you with mental health providers.

Moreover, one study emphasized the value of professional intervention, revealing that 69% of those who died by suicide didn’t seek mental health services in the year before their passing. This highlights the pressing need to engage mental health experts when addressing these delicate conversations.

Addressing suicide with your children is challenging but necessary. By using the six steps—being direct, showing empathy, creating a safety plan, using age-appropriate language, securing their environment, and seeking expert help—you’re arming yourself with the right tools to have this significant conversation. Mental health experts emphasize the urgency.

If you or someone you know is grappling with suicidal thoughts, seek immediate professional help. You can be a pivotal force in a crisis or create a safe space for your child to talk about what they experience daily.

Contact Embrace U Today

Embrace U is here for your family when you need expert guidance. Call us today at  (615) 656-8624 or email for adolescent mental health treatment. Remember, your child’s well-being matters, and we’re here to help every step of the way.


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