THE BLOG
08/13/2014 12:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2014

6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Talk to Kids About Robin Williams (Or Any Suicide)

Robin Williams' death, like any suicide, is a death from a potentially fatal disease. In this case it seems to have been depression, but can as easily be from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, addiction or other diseases. Many parents feel that Robin Williams has been a part of our lives since childhood, and were excited to watch some of his movies with our kids. Today I've had half a dozen questions submitted to my website and Facebook page from parents wondering if -- and how -- to talk to their kids about this. I have questions in return.

1. Why do you want to tell them?
  • Is your child directly affected by this tragedy? Tell them at any age.
  • Will/did your child hear about it somewhere else? Then you should discuss it for sure!
  • Is depression, PTSD or suicide a part of your family's story? This may be helpful or may not, depending on what is happening in your family and how old the child.
  • Will it help you to have somebody to talk to? Is your child the right person for that?

2. Have you had a chance to process your own feelings first?
When we tell kids any bad news, we need (if at all possible) to get through our own first reaction before that conversation. Kids (even teens and young adults) look to us to know what to feel, and if their lives will be OK. Turn to another adult to unload any strong emotions you might have, so you can speak calmly with your child.

3. Do you understand what happened?
On the SATs we had to do all of those word comparisons. Well, this one might help. Suicide is to depression as... heart attack is to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

When adults understand that depression is a disease, and a disease that a person lives with for many years but can get suddenly and surprisingly worse, that can make it easier to explain to children what has happened. A person who lives with depression might be doing everything they can -- taking their medicine, exercising, talking to the right therapists and doctors -- and still get suddenly worse.

Kids listen to the story you tell, but it needs to be a pretty short one. Be ready to explain in one or two sentences what occurred.

4. Can you explain this in an age-appropriate way?
  • Children under age 8: do not need to hear that suicide is something someone did, they can be told that it is something that happened to the person. Developmentally, kids this age have a very hard time not placing blame on the suicide victim.
  • Ages 9-13: Give a couple of sentences of information and then wait for a follow up question. It's often surprising what a child wants to know more about, and when they don't.
  • Ages 14-18: Start with a question like "Did you hear about this?" or "What do you know about depression and suicide?" This helps you know where to start your conversation and helps you correct any wrong information your child has. Even better, it shows your teen respect, and lets him or her know you're not "treating him like a baby."

5. Can you handle talking about this several times with your child?
No matter what their age, kids also need time to process new information. You will protect them from fear and anxiety if you end with an invitation to talk more whenever the child has a question or a feeling they'd like to discuss. Then be sure to check in again soon about this topic, even if they don't bring it up.

6. What one message do you want your kids to learn from this event? Whatever bad news you need to discuss with a child, they will only remember one or two of the things you say. Figure out what your "take home message is" and start and end with that phrase. Your message might be:
  • Your child can ask you anything at any time.
  • Anyone feeling sad should talk to someone.
  • Depression is a disease.
  • Suicide is never the answer, even if it feels like it is.
  • If you're worried about someone, speak up.

Your child will probably absorb the fact -- the bad news -- that you explain, but you also want her to hear something else. Be clear with yourself about what that one message is so that you can help your child be clear also.

If you find yourself that you are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide please take action. If you worry about a child or teen in your life who may have these issues, here is help.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.