This article discusses suicide. If your teen is in immediate danger or is going to act on suicidal thoughts, call 000 if you live in Australia. A number of crisis support services are also there for you – have a look at our urgent help page.
Learning that a friend, family member or someone in your community has died by suicide can be devasting for your teen. It can be especially hard to know how to talk to them about it, and how to support them after they have experienced such a tragic loss.
As hard as it is, the best way to support them is to talk openly with them about suicide. For many teens, this will be their first encounter with death and/or their first time knowing someone who has died by suicide.
Common experiences after a suicide loss
You might notice a change in your teen’s usual behaviour and their mood. Common reactions and responses to suicide in teens include:
- emotions such as grief, shock, increased anxiety, hopelessness, anger
- loss of interest in school and hobbies
- social withdrawal
- acting out
- increased risky behaviours, such as substance use, self-harming behaviours and fighting (picking fights with peers, or aggressive or violent behaviour).
It’s also common that young people will think more about suicide and might become preoccupied with death. Take any comments they make that indicate increased suicidal risk seriously. Let them know that it's normal to be experiencing these thoughts, and ask them directly about what sorts of thoughts they’ve been having and if they’ve been thinking about acting on them. See our article for tips on how to talk to your teen about their suicidal thoughts.
Create a safe space to talk about suicide with your teen
- Choose a comfortable and private space, such as when you’re taking a drive or a walk together, or when the two of you are alone in a quiet part of the house.
- Ask open questions, such as: ‘How have you been coping after learning about your friend’s death?’
- Try to be non-judgemental and patient. If your teen finds it hard to talk about what they are thinking and feeling, you could describe some common reactions and ask them if any of these sound like what they have been experiencing.
- Be honest about the nature of their friend’s death. Being secretive or vague around the topic of suicide may give your teen the impression that this isn’t a topic they can discuss with you.
- Ask your teen if they have any questions about the death, suicide, the funeral, or about grief. Listen carefully to their questions. If you don’t know the answer, suggest that you find it out together.
- Avoid trying to cheer them up by saying ‘You’ll be fine’ or by using ‘At least …’ statements. It’s more helpful to say things like, ‘It’s really hard. I’m here to support you through this.’
- Importantly, if they don’t want to talk, it can be helpful just to sit quietly with them or to do an activity together that gives them the opportunity to start talking with you when they’re ready.
How to support your teen through the grieving process
- Let your teen know that everyone experiences grief differently and that there is no ‘normal’ way to grieve.
- Remind them that it's okay to cry, to be angry, to be sad, to be tired and to be overwhelmed.
- Challenge any ideas that your teen might have that they are responsible for the death. Talk with them about this feeling and let them know that it’s not their fault.
- Brainstorm with your teen to see if there is anything they can do to honour their friend. Some people find comfort in contributing to a memorial, or in doing some creative writing about the loss. Others find it helpful to do something active, such as volunteering or raising funds for suicide awareness and prevention or for another cause that was important to the person who died.
- It’s also important that your teen is aware that it’s okay to have fun, to laugh, and to carry on with other activities. Often after grief, there is a lot of guilt and shame involved with experiencing happiness and normal life.
Help them to find extra support if they need it
The grief associated with losing someone to suicide can be complex, and you might need to arrange additional supports for your teen.
Phone counselling and online counselling supports for your teen
- Suicide Call Back Service: https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/. Ph: 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline: https://kidshelpline.com.au/get-help/webchat-counselling. Ph: 1800 55 1800
- eheadspace: https://headspace.org.au/eheadspace/. Ph: 1800 650 890
Using these services for the first time might be daunting for your teen. See our video about preparing your teen for professional help.
Getting support from your teen’s school
The school won’t necessarily be aware that your teen is experiencing grief following a suicide. It can help to call the school and notify the head teacher of your teen’s year or the wellbeing coordinator that your teen might need some more support just now. You might also ask if the school can offer access to a school counsellor or psychologist for your teen.
Arranging for some professional help
If you’re concerned for your teen because they were close to the person who died, or because of how strongly they are reacting to the death, or because you think their mood indicates they are a potential suicidal risk, it’s important to arrange some professional help. You can book in with your teen’s regular GP to arrange a mental health assessment and a referral to a local psychologist, or call your nearest headspace centre for support. See our quiz to help you explore different support options.
Take care of yourself as a parent
If your teen is struggling with the loss of someone by suicide, it’s very likely that you are also dealing with your own grief and/or shock. It’s important that you also have support for yourself and are talking about your reactions to the death with supportive people around you. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the Suicide Call Back Service, ReachOut’s free one-on-one Coaching, Beyond Blue, Lifeline or Parentline if you need additional support and advice. Supporting your teen through this difficult experience will likely be confronting and challenging. Please make sure that you take care of yourself through this experience as well.