A 3-year-old and a 13-year-old require honest conversation about suicide, yes, but to different degrees. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, helped frame some helpful age-by-age guidelines for Today.
- Preschool: Young children don’t necessarily understand the permanency of death. They are pretty clear, however, about emotions. If a child is asking about a death by suicide, a commonly suggested tactic is to talk about simple emotions — like deep sadness — and, says Gilboa, to frame suicide like a disease, such as cancer.
- Elementary school: Similarly, school age children benefit from simple language and framing suicide as a disease. By age 8, most children understand what death is and what it means to kill oneself. But they don’t necessarily understand, say, severe depression. Gliboa suggest letting children guide the conversation.
- Middle school: By middle school, kids may already have firsthand experience of depression or other mental health issue associated with suicidal thoughts, says Gilboa. Parents might begin to ask if a child has ever thought about suicide or if any of their friends have.
- High school and beyond: It’s time to talk directly to your child about suicide. “We are not going to say ‘if.’ Not ‘What would you do if you were worried about this.’ But, ‘What will you do when you are worried about yourself or your friends?’” said Gilboa. “It is nearly impossible for a child to get through high school without knowing someone with a mental health condition.”
For all ages, it’s important for a child to know that they are safe talking with you about such a tough topic. Listen. Be non-judgmental. It is not the time to debate whether suicide is right or wrong.