According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates are on the rise in the U.S., including among children and teens. As of 2020, suicide was the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults between the age of 15 and 19. Most suicide attempts in children and adolescents occur when children have depression or other mood disorders.
In 2019, 18.8% of students reported having seriously considered suicide. Many do not want to die but may have mixed feelings about life and want to end emotional or physical pain.
Suicide is 100% preventable, and there are effective treatments to help if your child is having suicidal thoughts. Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, offers the following advice for parents on how to talk to their child about suicide.
Signs of depression and suicidal thoughts in children and teens
Depression is more than just feeling down for a day or two. Instead, it is a change in your child's usual behavior that lasts for several weeks and can be a risk factor for suicide in children.
Signs of depression that can be warning signs of suicide in children and teens include:
- Feeling persistently sad or blue
- Becoming irritable or suddenly getting into trouble
- Failing to engage in previously enjoyable activities or interactions with friends
- Noticeably deteriorating in school or home functioning
- Reporting persistent physical complaints and/or making many visits to the school nurse
- Talking about suicide or being "better off dead"
What parents can do when children have suicidal thoughts
- Look for everyday opportunities to talk about suicide with your child or 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 suicide? Did you come across some new information or statistics about suicide?
Consider these conversation starters to talk to your child about suicide:
- "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 has a program for teachers and students on bullying and suicide prevention..."
- Ask your child if they have ever thought of suicide. Some parents believe asking their child or others if they have ever had suicidal thoughts will put the idea in their minds or make them more suicidal, but that is a myth. Many people who have been thinking of suicide feel relieved to talk about it, and research suggests that asking about suicide may make them less likely to consider it.
Questions to ask your child to engage in conversation:
- "What do you think about suicide?"
- "It sounds like many 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 responses. Ask yourself what assumptions and beliefs you have about suicide and mental illness. Children often base their feelings about mental health and suicide on their parents' beliefs. An empathic and validating response from you could be the difference between your child suffering alone and seeking help if they experience depression or suicidal thoughts now or in the future.
- Listen well to your child's responses. This means refraining from providing immediate advice and first asking clarifying questions about what you are hearing. It is okay to be honest and express your concern.
Consider these responses after you listen well:
- "It's really hard for me to hear 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. I'm here for you, and we'll work through this together."
- "Feelings come and go, but death is permanent. It's okay 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 alongside mental health disorders like depression or anxiety. And they do not go away on their own. Contact a mental health professional to discuss treatment options, such as seeing a psychologist or counselor for therapy or a psychiatrist for medication.
- Seek professional help for yourself if needed. It can be hard to learn 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 with their depression.
Learn more about Children's Health services for mood disorders such as depression in children and adolescents. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) is available 24/7 by call or text. You'll also find helpful information at Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) .
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