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Dear parents: ways you can effectively respond to teen suicide

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

You've observed some unusual behavior from your teen - they're more aggressive, spending more time than usual in their room, or they've thrown out suicide threats on multiple occasions. You're getting quite worried. "Is my teen suicidal?!" Although you may not want to believe that it's true, responding with the possibility in mind is crucial to preventing the unthinkable from happening. Our team of experts have created a guide on how you can respond with caution and care if you believe your teen or someone else's teen is at risk of suicide.

Tips for responding to comments of self-harm or suicide threats

  • Take their word seriously No matter how casual or jokingly said, when someone expresses threats, it is in their best interest to take them seriously and ask further about their mental state. They are not attention seeking selfishly, but are rather trying to let someone know the battle they're facing internally. What your teen is really saying is: "I need your love and attention because I'm in tremendous pain, and I can't seem to stop it on my own."

  • Remain calm Though you may be shocked and overwhelmed, it is important to try to stay relaxed to create a comfortable atmosphere for your teen to open up and reach out for your help. Pause and take a moment to breathe before responding in a moderate tone - "I hear you saying you want to hurt yourself. Can we talk more about that?" Panicking may cause more anxiety for your teen and make them more hesitant to tell you what's happening to avoid scaring you.

  • Ask questions gently and curiously Make it clear that you care, stress your willingness to listen and how their wellbeing is your priority. Questions that center around their experience like "What are things you're experiencing that make you believe self-harm is the answer?" or "Would you like to let me in and help me understand what you're going through? I really want to be there for you." If your teen does have suicidal thoughts, ask if he or she has a plan of how and when to do it. These answers can help you evaluate their mindset and help you get him/her the necessary help. If your teen is unwilling to answer these questions, you may try suggesting they talk to another trusted adult or simply let them know you'll be there when they're ready to share.

  • Keep the conversation going - By discussing this topic with your teen, you are not putting the idea in their head or increasing the likelihood of suicidal behavior. It doesn't need to be a weekly discussion, but frequent enough for your teen to know it is not a topic you will shy away from. An open conversation can help decrease some of the anxiety experienced by suicidal youth and can actually reassure them that someone else cares about and wants to help them see the other options they have.

  • Pay close attention If your teen has expressed threats, keep a close eye on their activities, people they talk to, their social media accounts, school attendance. Communicate with their school's counselor about your concerns so the school can pay extra attention and try their best to ensure safety for your teen. You may consider getting their close friends' and their parents' contact information.

  • With help from a professional, come up with a safety plan Remember that this mental distortion isn’t permanent, and your teen just needs help to see past the moment. Once you've found professional medical help for your teen, make sure you are aware and given a safety plan to turn to in a time of crisis. It will probably consist of a list of people to contact and activities that will calm them down and provide distraction when they feel the urge to harm themselves. If you suspect your child might be seriously suicidal, it is extremely important to keep all firearms, alcohol, and medications under lock and key to limit their access to tools for harming themselves.

What are some things I should avoid doing?

  • Don't assume selfish intent - If your teen has expressed intent on suicide, shaming them for being selfish can be very hurtful and damaging and make them feel even worse about a condition they feel they have little control over.

  • Don't argue against their reality - Saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Just get over it.” not only dismisses their pain, but drives a bigger divide in your relationship. Your teen will feel more alone, helpless and turn more deeply inward to avoid feeling more rejected.

  • Don't jump to solutions - "Find new friends!", "You need to do ______ instead." or "Why haven't you thought of ______.", are some things you may say in attempts to take their pain away. However, a depressed person may not be able to see your solutions as helpful or possible and may instead find your suggestions overwhelming. You also don't want to make them feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings. So focus first on listening and ask if they'd like help thinking of solutions. You can also offer to help them seek professional help from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist who will be able to evaluate their condition and advise on how to move forward. Read here for tips on talking to your teen about seeing a therapist.

  • Don't blame yourself - You can’t “fix” someone else’s depression, nor can love save them from it. There are numerous factors that can contribute to someone's suicidal intent, and spending time blaming yourself will not help ease the situation. What matters is what you do going forward.

  • Avoid toxic positivity - "Just think on the bright side", "Things could be a lot worse.", "Everything happens for a reason." on the surface sound like encouraging phrases, but this "good vibes only" approach to life actually minimizes and denies the real feelings of someone. Acknowledge that life has both ups and downs, and use empathetic phrases like "That must be really hard.", "Your feelings are valid.", "I'm listening." to help your teen feel that it's okay to feel what they feel.

How do I prevent suicide from happening to my child?

  • Regular check-ins on their mental health You don't need to wait for warning signs before taking action, suicide prevention starts with a simple "How are you doing, really?" Check-ins are not meant to be a time to offer quick fixes or solutions to their challenges, but a time for learning about what’s really happening in their world. The key is to validate and support their feelings, follow their cues and say things like, “Tell me more about that.", "I’d love to understand more about what that’s like for you.", "When he said that/did that to you, how did that make you feel?”

  • Take note of risk factors When a teen considers suicide, risk factors such as major loss (breakup or death), bullying, substance use, family history of suicide, sexual orientation, chronic medical condition are likely present in their lives. If you know your teen is experiencing significant life challenges, especially a combination of multiple risk factors, you'll want to be more alert of any signs of suicidal ideation.

  • Share about your own struggles with mental health Without minimizing or invalidating their struggles, share some hardships you are facing in your life and how you are getting through difficult times. You may talk about how feelings of anxiety, deep sadness and loss are not permanent, and share how you're working through challenges related to work, friendships, or internal struggles. This helps your teen see that they are not alone, and counseling or treatment are useful solutions they too can try.

  • Leave the door open Your teen may not open up immediately, so it's important to let them know that the invitation to talk will always be there. It can sound something like “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here to listen and support you.” or “I won’t judge, and I’ll never stop supporting you, no matter what challenges you face.” By not forcing them to talk about it but letting them know you'd like to, your teen is more likely to open up to you. This often happens unexpectedly while engaging in some activity together, side-by-side rather than face-to-face, so make sure to keep having those moments together!

What do I do if I know someone else's teen is having suicidal thoughts?

  • Don't ignore it - You may want to turn a blind eye because of how uncomfortable this is, but if you consider what you would want another parent to do if they knew your teen was having suicidal thoughts, you may think differently.

  • Evaluate your teen's wellbeing - Your teen may be afraid of taking action and being wrong, or not feel equipped to help. Express empathy and see how your teen is processing this to gauge their capacity of supporting their friend- "She must be in a lot of pain and I'm so sad to hear that. How is it feeling for you to know your friend is hurting?"

  • Help your teen set healthy boundaries and expectations- Help them understand that they can’t change someone if the other person isn’t ready to change, and discuss the importance of self care and how to step away if the situation becomes too triggering. This is an excellent opportunity for your teen to practice healthy boundaries in mature friendships - "If it's too much for you, it might be best to take a step back. I know you want to help but your wellbeing comes first"

  • Don't promise confidentiality - Your teen may ask you not to tell anyone in fear of their friend feeling ashamed. However, because a person's life is at risk, you can't make that promise and have to seek help for this person. Let your teen know "Thank you for trusting me with this info. Do you know if your friend is okay with me telling other adults? It's something I should not keep to myself because your friend's life is in danger. I want them to have the help they deserve."

  • Make a plan together and value privacy - Try to discuss with your teen whenever possible before reaching out to others for help. Your teen trusted you with this information, and showing you respect their opinion in handling the situation together will foster a more collaborative relationship. Focus on researching self harm together, deciding how your teen would like to support their friend, and agreeing how your teen would like you to help.

  • Use an anonymous reporting resource like Safe2Tell - if the risk seems too high and danger is imminent, you can submit an anonymous report about this individual and Safe2Tell will pass it on to the local team for intervention.


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