Talking with your child about suicide
Learn the warning signs and how to start the conversation.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, according to the CDC . Most suicide attempts in children and adolescents occur in the midst of depression or other mood disorders.
Nearly one in five high schoolers have seriously considered suicide within the past 12 months, and about 8% have made an attempt. Many do not want to die, but they feel ambivalent (i.e., have mixed feelings) about life and simply want to end emotional or physical pain.
Suicide is 100% preventable and there are effective treatments to help. Nicholas J. Westers, Psy. D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, offers the following advice for parents.
Signs of depression and suicidal thoughts
Depression is more than just feeling blue or down in the dumps for a day or two. Instead, it is a change in usual behavior that lasts for several weeks.
Signs of depression that can be warning signs of suicide in children and teens include:
- Feeling persistently sad or blue
- Becoming much more irritable or suddenly getting into trouble a lot
- Failing to engage in previously pleasurable activities or interactions with friends
- Having a marked deterioration in school or home functioning
- Reporting persistent physical complaints and/or making many visits to school nurses
- Talking about suicide or being “better off dead”
What can you do as a parent?
- Look for everyday opportunities to bring up the conversation with your teen. Was there a suicide covered by the news? Is your child’s school implementing a suicide prevention program? Is there a new television show depicting a suicide? Did you come across some new information or statistics about suicide?
Consider these conversation starters:
- “I read a post online about how parents should talk to their children about suicide…”
- “I was reading that youth suicide has been increasing…”
- “I heard about a new TV show/movie that talks about suicide…”
- “I see your school is having a program for teachers/students on bullying and suicide prevention...”
- Ask your child if he or she has ever thought of suicide. Some parents believe asking their child or others if they have ever thought about suicide will put the idea in their mind or make them more suicidal. It will not. In fact, many people who have been thinking of suicide feel relieved to talk about it, and research suggests that asking about it may make them less likely to consider it.
Consider these conversation questions:
- “What do you think about suicide?”
- “It sounds like a lot of young people have thought about suicide at some point. Do you know if any of your friends have?”
- “Has this been something that’s ever crossed your mind?”
- Prepare yourself to respond calmly and nonjudgmentally, regardless of your child’s response. Ask yourself what assumptions and beliefs you have about suicide and mental illness. Children often base their own assumptions about mental health and suicide on their parents’ assumptions. An empathic and validating response from you could be the difference between suffering alone and seeking help if they experience depression or suicidal thoughts now or in the future.
- Listen well to your child’s response. This means refraining from providing immediate advice, but first asking clarification questions and reflecting back to your child what you are hearing. However, it is OK to be honest and express your concern.
Consider these responses after you listen well:
- “It’s really hard for me to hear that you’ve thought of ending your life, but I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.”
- “No matter what mistakes you might make in life, or what grades you get, your life is more important. Feelings come and go, but death is permanent. It’s OK to feel guilt or sadness, but please let me know right away if you ever have thoughts of ending your life. We’ll get through this together.”
- Seek professional help for your child if needed. Suicidal thoughts often occur in the context of a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety. And they do not go away on their own. Contact a mental health professional to discuss treatment options (e.g., psychologist or counselor for therapy, psychiatrist for medication).
- Seek professional help for yourself if needed. It can be difficult to learn that your child is struggling. Family support is very important. Research shows that taking care of your own mental and emotional health as a parent can help your child recover from their own depression.
Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7. You’ll also find helpful information at Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) .
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