How to Talk to a Child or Teen About Suicide and Mental Health

Published August 16, 2022
father consoling daughter

It's never too early to talk to your children about their mental health. It's an important aspect of their overall well-being that can impact the way they see themselves and how they interact with the world around them. Some aspects of mental health, such as suicide, can seem like a heavy and difficult topic to discuss. However, it's too important of a subject to pass up just because it's tough to navigate. You can look to this guide to help you talk to your kids and teens about suicide and their overall mental health.

How to Talk to Kids About Suicide

If you're a parent wanting to talk to your child about suicidal thoughts, it can be difficult to even know where to start. Whether you've noticed changes in your child's behavior, or just want to check in, you can follow these steps to help get the conversation going.

Step 1: Talk to Your Child About Mental Health

One way to start the conversation with your child is to first talk to them about mental health. Have they heard the term before? Do they know what mental health is? Ask them to tell you what they know about it and then share what you know about it.

Explain that everyone in the world has mental health, just like everyone in the world has physical health. You might even find it helpful to relate the two concepts to one another while you talk to your child. For example, explain how when a person has a hurt leg, they go to a doctor to make it better. And, when a person is hurting on the inside, with their emotions or thoughts, they also go to a doctor to make it better.

Some ways to explain mental health to a child are:

  • Your physical health is how you feel on the outside of your body. It's the strength of your arms and legs. Your mental health is how you feel on the inside. It's the thoughts you have about yourself and the world.
  • Mental health has to do with the emotions you are feeling on the inside. It affects our thoughts and even our actions. How do you feel on the inside?
  • Mental health is how you feel about yourself. It can be affected by how someone feels about their body, their thoughts, their friends, or their life.

Step 2: Ask Your Child About Their Mental Health

mother talking to son

Once your child knows more about mental health and what it is, you can ask them about it. Be sure to explain to them that mental health is important; and that when a person has poor mental health, it can cause them to feel low, tired, and unhappy.

Let your child know that everyone has bad mental health days sometimes and that it's impossible for someone to be happy all the time. You can share examples of when you've had bad mental health days. You can even start the check-in by sharing your own mental health update.

It's okay if you feel uncomfortable and don't know where to start. Especially if this is your first time having this kind of conversation with your child. Some ways to ask your child about their mental health are:

  • I've been feeling a bit low this week because I haven't been sleeping well. How have you been feeling this week?
  • I just wanted to check in and see how your mental health has been. How have you been feeling lately? Is there anything you want to talk about or share?
  • I want us to be able to talk about our mental health openly because it's important to know how people are feeling. I thought we could have a mental health check-in. I've been feeling pretty good lately. How have you been feeling?

Step 3: Talk to Your Child About Suicide

After you do a mental health check-in, you might be ready to talk to your child about suicide. This is a heavy topic, so take all the time you need when having this conversation with your child.

Are you wondering if your child is ready for this discussion? If so, you're not alone. It can feel like a dark and extreme step to take. However, suicide is an important aspect for children to be aware of. Especially since it can be a consequence of poor mental health.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. In 2020, over 45,000 people in the United States died by suicide, which means that your child may even know someone whose family has been affected. For this reason alone, it's an important topic to discuss. Some ways to explain suicide to a child are:

  • Sometimes people feel so sad or overwhelmed that they don't want to keep living anymore, so they take their own life.
  • Some people experience a lot of pain and loneliness in life, to the point where they don't want to keep living. Sometimes people kill themselves to make these feelings stop.
  • Some people have good mental health while others struggle with it. Sometimes, these intense negative thoughts and emotions can lead someone to end their own life. This is called suicide.

Step 4: Ask Your Child If They Have Suicidal Thoughts

Once your child knows about the seriousness of suicide, you should ask them if they have ever had any similar thoughts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates of suicide attempts and deaths among children have been on the rise in the United States. In fact, suicide is now the eighth leading cause of death for children ages five to 11. Additionally, children that attempt suicide are six times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide again during their adolescence.

As a parent, it's important for you to know if your child has ever thought about hurting themselves or taking their own life, so you can step in and support them. Some ways to ask your child about suicidal thoughts are:

  • Have you ever felt really sad or lonely and thought that you would do anything to make those feelings stop? Maybe even hurt yourself?
  • Have you ever wished that you didn't have to live anymore? Or thought that the world would be a better place if you weren't here?
  • Do you ever wish you could go to sleep and never wake up? Or felt like you just didn't want to keep living?

Step 5: Support Your Child However They Respond

father hugging daughter

Your child might tell you that they have never had any suicidal thoughts before. If this is how they respond, let them know that it's okay if this changes. Encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling if suicidal thoughts arise in the future. Remind them that it's okay to talk about their mental health whenever they want to.

If your child shares that they are currently having or have had suicidal thoughts, validate their feelings and take them seriously. Let them know that it's a safe space and that you appreciate their honesty. You may be feeling overwhelmed by emotions, but do your best to stay calm so that you can support your child.

Ask your child how often they are having these thoughts and what they need in order to feel safe. If the thoughts were in the past and your child is not thinking about harming themselves in the present, ask if they would feel comfortable talking to a mental health professional and schedule an appointment. If your child is currently having thoughts of suicide, stay with them. Call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, with your child to talk to a crisis counselor immediately. Or, if the situation escalates, call 911.

How to Talk to Teens About Suicide

If you want to talk to a teenager about suicide, the conversation might look a little different. They may already be familiar with the concept of mental health and have been exposed to the topic of suicide. You can spend less time covering the definitions of these topics if your teen already has a good understanding of them. This will allow you to focus more attention on how they feel and relate to these topics.

Tell your teen that you want to have a serious conversation with them about something that is important to you. Then, once you have their attention, you can begin the conversation. Remember to go easy on yourself. It's okay to admit to your teen that you don't have all the answers, but you do have a lot of love and concern.

Step 1: Talk to Your Teen About Mental Health

mother talking to teen son

Depending on the age of your teen, they might already have heard the term mental health. Especially since it is commonly used on social media. However, it can still be helpful to you as a parent to learn more about what they know.

Ask your teen if they've heard the term mental health before. What do they know about it? Where have they seen it used? How do they feel about talking about mental health?

Depending on what they know, you might find it useful to go over the definition with them. Share that mental health refers to a person's emotional, psychological, and even social well-being. Give examples about how the way a person feels on the inside, the thoughts they have, and even their relationships with friends and family can affect their mental health.

Step 2: Ask Your Teen About Their Mental Health

After you've started the broader conversation about mental health, you can make the topic more personal by applying it to yourself and your teen. Remember, your teen might not want to talk to you about their mental health because it can make them feel uncomfortable or like you're trying to pry into their personal life.

Let your teen know that you're asking about their mental health because you care about them, and not because you're trying to invade their privacy. Talk to them about how rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers are on the rise, and that you want to make mental health an open topic of conversation in your home.

Share an update about your mental health first, and then encourage your teen to share. Let them know that it's a safe space, and that you won't judge them for their response. Some ways to ask your teen about their mental health are:

  • I've been feeling really stressed lately with the amount of work I have, which makes me feel anxious. How have you been feeling lately?
  • I never talked about mental health with my parents, but I always wished they would have asked. So, how have you been feeling lately?
  • How has your mental health been? What things do you do to take care of it? What can I do to support you?

Step 3: Talk to Your Teen About Suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults ages 15-24. This means that it may be more important than ever to talk to your teen about suicide.

Your child may have been exposed to suicide through movies and TV shows. Or maybe they even know someone or know of someone, that has taken their own life. It can be a scary and heartbreaking thing to think about, but your child has most likely been exposed to suicide in one way or another. Ask them what they know about it to learn more about their experiences.

You might find it helpful to share some information with them about suicide. This will let them know why it's important for you to have this conversation together. Some important statistics on suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) are:

  • In 2020, men were almost four times as likely to die by suicide than women.
  • About 130 people die by suicide each day.
  • 93 percent of adults think suicide is preventable.
  • About 1.20 million people attempted suicide in 2020.

Step 4: Ask Your Teen If They Have Suicidal Thoughts

Many people used to believe that if you asked someone if they were experiencing thoughts of suicide that you would give them the idea to take their own life. However, this is not true.

Organizations like AFSP encourage people to ask their loved ones directly if they are currently or used to experience thoughts of suicide. The only way of knowing what your teen is really thinking and feeling is by asking them about it. It's the only way to take preventative steps to keep them safe.

It's okay if you don't know exactly how to ask the question, or if you're nervous about hearing the response. Just do your best. Some ways to ask your child about suicidal thoughts are:

  • Have you been feeling sad or depressed lately? Or had any thoughts that it might just be easier if you just weren't here?
  • Have you ever tried to hurt or kill yourself? Or had any thoughts about hurting or killing yourself?
  • Have you ever wished that you didn't have to live anymore? Or felt so low that you thought about ways to end your life?

Step 5: Support Your Teen However They Respond

mom supporting teenage daughter

Your teen might tell you that they have never had suicidal thoughts. If this is their response, let them know that you want to have more open and honest conversations about mental health in the future just to check-in. Encourage them to share how they are feeling. Especially if and when they experience mental health struggles.

If your teen shares that they currently or previously had thoughts of suicide, ask them more questions about it. How often did the thoughts occur? What caused these thoughts? Do you have a plan to harm yourself? Gather as much information as you can.

If your teen only experienced thoughts of suicide in the past or doesn't have a plan in place to harm themselves, encourage them to get help. Explore therapy options together or visit a healthcare professional. If your child is currently experiencing thoughts of suicide or has a plan to harm themselves, stay with them. Call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, to talk to a crisis counselor with your child. In an emergency situation, call 911.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Thoughts

You may be wondering if your child is being honest about the state of their mental health. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are some warning signs of suicide you can look out for. Some warning signs to be aware of in children and young adults are:

  • Changes in eating patterns or sleeping behaviors
  • Increased rates of sadness
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Complaints about physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • Declines in the quality of schoolwork, or increased rates of acting out at school
  • Increased interest in death and dying
  • Suicidal statements, such as "I wish I was dead," "I won't be around for much longer," or "I don't think I can do this anymore."

Risk Factors for Suicide

According to research from the CDC and AFSP, there are also some risk factors associated with suicide and suicidal thoughts. When a child experiences any of these risk factors, they may be more likely to attempt suicide or experience suicidal ideation. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Having previous family members attempt suicide
  • Exposure to violence
  • Being impulsive
  • Showing aggressive or disruptive behavior at home or school
  • Increased access to firearms
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Experiencing loss or rejection

What to Do If Your Child Is Having Thoughts of Suicide

If your child says they are experiencing thoughts of suicide, there are things you can do to support them and lead them to whatever help they need.

Follow along with the How to Respond to Suicidal Ideation flow chart. It will help guide you through the conversation and suggest the next steps you can take. It can be a challenging conversation, but also one of the most important ones you may have.

Follow QPR Protocol

QPR protocol stands for question, persuade, and refer. It's a suicide prevention protocol that is proven to reduce the rates of suicide. It was created in 1995 by Paul Quinnett. Today, many people use the protocol to disrupt a mental health crisis whenever it arises.

Question - Ask your child if they have a plan laid out about how they would kill themselves.

  • Have you had thoughts about hurting yourself?
  • Have you had thoughts about suicide or have you been thinking about dying?
  • Have you made a plan about how you would hurt or kill yourself?

Persuade - Persuade your child that they don't need to end their life in order to feel relief. Remind them of all the people in life that would miss them if they were gone. Let them know that you care about them and want to help.

  • I care about you and I want to support you in whatever ways I can.
  • I'm so sorry you're going through this, and I'm here for you.
  • I love you and I am going to do whatever I can to help.

Refer - Refer them to a mental health professional. This may look like you helping them sign up for therapy, scheduling a doctor's appointment with a healthcare professional, or calling 911 if it's a state of emergency.

  • Can we call a crisis line and talk to someone right now?
  • Can I help you find a therapist and schedule an appointment?
  • Can I call and set up an appointment with your health care provider?

Encourage Your Child to Seek Support

child in therapy session

After you follow QPR protocol, you should encourage your child to seek mental health support. Let them know that you will help them find a therapist that meets their needs. Or, that you will schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional to explore other options.

Make a plan together to address the issues and move forward. Allow your child to have a voice in how they want to proceed. If they only feel comfortable talking to you right now, be their support person. Then, inform them that they might benefit from talking to someone with more experience. Offer to attend sessions or appointments with them if it would make them feel more comfortable.

Provide Mental Health Hotlines

At the end of the day, your child might not want to talk to you about their current or past suicidal thoughts. And, they might need to discuss things with others when they are in between mental healthcare sessions.

For this reason, it's important to provide them with the numbers for mental health hotlines. This way, they can reach out to a person that specializes in supporting others through a crisis. You can remind them that they can do this anonymously.

Some mental health hotlines are:

Tips for Parents on Talking to Children About Suicide

Talking to your child about suicide can be difficult for many reasons. It causes you and your child to be vulnerable and talk about your mental health with one another. Discussions about death and taking one's own life can be heavy.

It's okay if you don't have all the answers or feel like you don't know exactly what to say during the conversation. There's no perfect way to have this talk, even though it's an important one to have. Lead with your love and support for your child and trust that you are doing the right thing by having the conversation.

Remember That Anyone Can Be Struggling

teenage boy sad at school

Even if you think your kiddo is the happiest person on the planet, you should talk to them about how they are feeling. People can act one way on the outside, but feel completely different on the inside. Anyone can be struggling with their mental health at any time.

Whether your child is or isn't struggling with their mental health, it's useful information for parents. If your child isn't struggling, it might make you feel good to know that you checked in with your child on a deeper level. Doing so will make your child feel seen and cared for, which might make them feel safer about sharing personal mental health updates in the future.

If your child is struggling with their mental health, you can work with your child to see what is causing their mental health struggles and make a plan to move forward. Maybe your child wants to talk to a mental health professional or is being bullied at school. Once you know what's going on, you can take action.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask Tough Questions

Don't assume that your child will come and talk to you about how they are feeling, or be forthcoming if they are experiencing thoughts of suicide. These are difficult and complex things for them to experience. Sharing their thoughts with others can feel too vulnerable for some.

Also, they may be worried that sharing these thoughts may make you worried or think differently about them. Even if you and your child are close and you feel like they tell you everything, it doesn't mean that they do. They may still be keeping some heavier, more sensitive things to themselves.

As a parent, you need to start the conversation and check in with your kids. When you open the door for discussion, it can help kids feel safe and may make them more likely to share their experiences in the future.

Continue to Check In

Your child might not be open to having a conversation about their mental health when you ask them at first. They might feel uncomfortable about being asked about their feelings, and even about sharing them honestly. That's okay. It's important to check in continuously with your child about their mental health.

It doesn't have to be a serious and heavy conversation every time. For example, when your child comes home from school, you can simply ask them how their mental health has been, the same way you would ask them about how their day has been. They might even feel more comfortable sharing if you also shared how you were feeling.

If you want to have a more in-depth check-in with your child, you can do that too. You can plan to check in with them once a month and talk about mental health over lunch. This might ensure that you have more time to cover all the topics that you want to talk about, and it can make the experience more relaxed when it's paired with an enjoyable activity.

Take Care of Your Own Mental Health

Talking about heavy topics with your child is not easy. In fact, it may make you feel stressed or anxious, especially if your child discloses that they are struggling with their mental health. Remember that it's also important for you to take care of your own mental health at this time. You can't provide support for your child if you yourself are unsupported. You might find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional of your own, or lean on loved ones for additional support.

Resources for Parents, Kids, and Teens

Looking for more information on suicide and suicide prevention? There are several online resources for parents, kids, and young adults.

Resources for Parents

Many organizations have resources surrounding the statistics on suicide, as well as ways for parents to better understand and help their children. Some of these resources include:

Resources for Kids

A great way to explore more about mental health, emotions, and suicidal thoughts with your child is through reading. There are many children's literature books out there that discuss the topic in ways that are easy for young children to understand. Some of these books include:

Resources for Teens

Many people experience thoughts of suicide, including young adults. If you want to teach your child more about mental health in general, or suicide prevention in particular, there are resources to support them. Some resources to check out are:

Tough Conversations Can Help Save a Life

Parents care about the health and wellness of their children. Mental health struggles might not be a physical wound that you can see on your child like a scratch or scrape, but they are a part of your child's overall health, and an important aspect of their life. Those struggling with mental health can suffer negative impacts if their issues aren't addressed. This is why it's important to have a conversation about suicide and suicidal thoughts with your child. Don't wait for them to start the conversation or ask for help because they might not ever do it.

You can take an active role in protecting your child's well-being by talking about mental health honestly and openly, without any stigma or judgment attached. When you do this, you create a safe space for your child to share their true thoughts and emotions. This brings you one step closer to fully understanding them, and it may even save a life.

How to Talk to a Child or Teen About Suicide and Mental Health