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Discussing Suicidality with Children: A Glossary for Child Life Professionals

By Jacquie Rahm, CCLS, CTRS-C, YMHFA

"Talking about sensitive topics and being vulnerable is difficult for all involved, especially when the child is embarrassed, worried about getting in trouble, or doesn’t have the words or knowledge to express and/or understand what they are experiencing. Open and honest conversations about difficult topics, ideally before personal experience by the child, shows it is safe to talk and ask questions about, reducing misunderstandings and feelings of isolation or judgement, ensuring knowledge of how to respond and where to go for help if needed, and fostering a sense of trust and support within the relationship (University of Utah, 2022)."

-Jacquie Rahm, CCLS
from "Suicide Affects Everyone – Let’s Talk About It! (With Children and Adolescents)"

The following glossary was created by Jacquie Rahm, CCLS to support child life professionals and caregivers defining and describing suicidality and associated terms to children. To read more about how to talk to children and adolescents about suicidality, check out our #ChildLife Blog series on Suicide Prevention Month.

Download a PDF version now: Glossary: Discussing Suicidality with Children

Suicide: Self-inflicted acts leading to death that were intentional (person knowingly wanted to do these acts) and purposeful (person wanted the acts to lead to death)

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Suicide is when someone is so sad, they chose to die to make the sadness stop.”
  • “Suicide means someone made themselves die.”
  • “Their brain was sick and made them think the only way to stop the sadness was to die.”

Experiencing any aspects associated with suicide, including thoughts, ideation, plans, attempts, and completed suicide

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Suicidality means that someone is thinking about wanting to make themselves die. Sometimes this means they are hurting themselves to try and feel better, sometimes it means they are thinking of ways they could die.”
  • “When someone is thinking about wanting to hurt themselves or die, it is really important to tell an adult. If someone ever tells you they are hurting themselves to try to feel better, or they have a plan to die, you need to tell an adult so we can help them.”
  • NOTE: Teens should also know they can call the police to help a friend (or themselves) in moment of crisis if there are no “adults” or “trusted adults” available.

Depression: Mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and loss of interest that inhibits daily functioning and interaction

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Depression is an illness that means someone’s brain is sick.”
  • “Depression is not contagious.”
  • “Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain. When someone has depression, their brain makes their thoughts and feelings really confusing and makes them feel very badly inside/emotionally. Sometimes their brains make them think there is no way to feel better or stop all the unwanted thoughts and feelings they have.”

Self-harm: Various methods by which individuals purposefully injure themselves (e.g., cutting, substance use, deliberate reckless behavior)

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “People hurt themselves when they are so sad, they think feeling physical pain might take some of the emotional pain from the sadness away."
  • “Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves, or does something knowing it is dangerous because they want to be hurt.”
  • You should always tell an adult if someone tells you they are thinking about or are actually hurting themselves.”

Risk and protective factors: Personal attributes, characteristics, and environmental exposures that influence an individual’s resiliency, likelihood of developing a disorder, or severity of effects from a disorder

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Different things happening in a person’s life might make them more likely to feel like they want to die. But adults are always here to help kids with anything that might be going on that’s making them feel bad.”
  • “You can always tell people how much you appreciate them and that they can always talk to you or an adult if they are feeling really stressed, sad, or scared about something.”
  • “It’s really important to always be nice to others, because you never know what someone is feeling on the inside.”

Mental health: 
emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing that affects how we think, feel, and act and helps determine how we handle stress, relationships with others, and make choices

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Mental health is how we are feeling and thinking, and if it’s happy or sad/positive or negative."
  • "Mental health means we feel good about our emotions, things we think about, and people in our lives. Sometimes our mental health isn’t very good, and we feel stressed, sad, or like we don’t have a lot of people we can talk to or spend time with. You can always tell me if you think your mental health is feeling bad.”

Behavioral health: 
mental health, along with actions taken by individuals, which affect wellness. Includes mental health disorders as well as substance use, eating disorders, and addictions

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Behavioral health is how our feelings and thoughts make us act/behave, and if our behaviors are healthy and safe or not.”
  • “Sometimes when our emotions and thoughts are bad/sad, they can make us act in ways that are dangerous to ourselves or someone else.”
  • “You should always tell an adult if you think you are making unsafe choices and you’re not sure why, or if you think a friend or someone you know is feeling really badly and making unsafe choices.”

 negative and unfair ideas or labels society has about someone or something

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “Stigma means judging something without really knowing about it. The United States has stigma for behavioral health that usually makes people embarrassed to talk about it or ask for help. But stigma isn’t the truth and you should always remember that I will never judge you for talking about this with me.”

Safe messaging:
 Communications about behavioral health that support help-seeking and prevention efforts and do not increase the risk of suicidality for vulnerable people.

Developmentally Appropriate Examples:

  • “It’s really important that if you ever hear anyone talking about mental health or suicide, you make sure they know they are safe and not alone. We don’t want people to feel even worse, or believe that they should die.”
  • “If you ever hear someone joking around about mental health or suicide, you should tell someone. It’s not cool to joke like that. It could make people feel a lot worse about their suicidality and might even make them think they should act on their harmful thoughts.”

This is only a small list. For more comprehensive lists of relevant terms, please visit the links below:

  • 988 Lifeline’s Mental Health & Suicide Prevention Glossary:
  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s Topics and Terms:


University of Utah (2022, September 6). How to talk to your child about suicide: An age-by-age guide.

CAMH (n.d.). When a parent dies by suicide: What kids want to know.

CHOC (2023, August 31). Suicide prevention conversation starters for parents.

The Sharing Place (n.d.). Explaining suicide to children.

Child Life Profession