What Can Parents Do?
Most teens who attempt or die by suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones ahead of time. It’s important for parents to know the warning signs so that youth who might be suicidal can get the help they need.
Watch and Listen
Keep a close eye on any behaviors that are not typical for your teen. For example, if your teen is starting to receive poor grades, this may signal that your teen is withdrawing at school.
Express your concern and support, and show that you take their problems seriously. A fight with a friend might not seem like a big deal to you, but for a teen, it can feel incredibly overwhelming. Minimizing or discounting their experience can increase feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.
Use “active listening” and allow your teen to be heard. Oftentimes, teens do not believe that their feelings will change, or that life will get better. As a parent, you want to create opportunities for open, honest communication, and validating their feelings will encourage them to open up to you.
If your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, a school counselor, or your child’s doctor.
Some parents are reluctant to ask teens if they have been thinking about suicide or hurting themselves. Some fear that by asking, they will plant the idea of suicide in their teen’s head. This isn’t true; by asking, you give your teen an opportunity to reach out and get help.
Here are some ways you might ask about suicide:
- “I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking a lot about wanting to be dead. Have you been having thoughts about trying to kill yourself?”
- “Are you feeling suicidal?”
- “Sometimes when teens go through some of the difficulties you are going through, they think of suicide as an option, is this something you are thinking about?”
Be cognizant of your words, tone, and body language. The way you express yourself can encourage your teen to open up or shut down:
- Don’t say, “This is crazy!” Instead say, “I’m concerned and I am not sure how to best support you with these kinds of feelings.”
- Don’t say, “Why would you want to die?” Instead say, “What are some of the reasons you are seeing suicide and/or self-harm as an option?”
- Don’t say, “There’s no reason to be upset about something like this!” Instead say, “It seems like you are really hurting and upset by this. How can I help you?”
If your teen is coming to you, THEY WANT TO TALK. Avoid using dismissive clichés:
- Don’t say, “Things always work out!” Instead say, “I can tell things are just really tough for you right now and you’re not sure when they will get better.”
- Don’t say, “This feeling will go away.” Instead say, “What you are going through is very painful and real and could take time before you feel better. I’m here to help.”
- Don’t say, “You’re just a moody teenager; it will pass.” Instead say, “Teens go through a lot of changes that can affect mood. Some irritability can be normal, but some of this sounds pretty serious.”
If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or your local hospital’s department of psychiatry can provide a list of doctors in your area. Your local mental health association or county medical society can also provide references.
If your teen is in a crisis situation, your local emergency room can conduct a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the appropriate resources.
Create Safety: Directly ask your teen if they have a plan for suicide. Minimize threats to safety in your home and surroundings. Lock up all sharp objects, medications and other poisonous household agents and secure any firearms.
Confidentiality: There is no confidentiality when a teen’s life is at risk. If you are a family member of a teenager that has confided in you about thoughts of suicide, tell them you have to let others know.
Supervision and immediate safety: If your child is in immediate danger to harm themselves, you can call 911, contact a mobile crisis team, or transport your child to an emergency room in order to complete a psychiatric evaluation.
If immediate safety is not a concern: If your child’s immediate safety is not a concern at the moment, but feel your child may benefit from counseling, you have options.
- Option 1: Contact your primary care provider and request a referral to mental health services and counseling.
- Option 2: Contact your insurance provider directly and request a list of providers within your network.
- Option 3: If you do not have insurance, there are agencies with sliding scales available in most communities. You can find these online.
- Option 4: Call Teen Lifeline (602-248-8336 or 800-248-8336) to help you find a referral that works for your teen’s needs.
Coordinate: Keep your teen’s school and any other important parties in your teen’s life in the loop as necessary. The more adults who are on the same page regarding your teen’s circumstances, the more safety you create.