My Teen is Having Suicidal Thoughts – What Do I Do?

Article at a Glance

  • Teens have a variety of reasons for not asking for help, so we must be careful observers.
  • Seek professional help early, for suicidal thoughts and for underlying mental health and substance abuse problems.
  • Take all threats seriously. Overreacting is better than underreacting.

If you’re worried about your teen, you’re not alone.

Utah’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 15.5% of Utah high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, 12.8% made a suicide plan, and 7.3% attempted suicide one or more times. And the numbers keep climbing.

But even though teens need our help, they may push us away if they:

  •     Believe there is no hope and that nobody can help them.
  •     See asking for help as a sign of weaknesses.
  •     Are reluctant to admit to having a mental health problem.
  •     Are embarrassed or ashamed to talk to anybody about it.
  •     Are in denial that there is a problem.
  •     Don’t want to add to our worry and stress.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take no for an answer. There’s a lot we can do as parents to help prevent suicidal thoughts from manifesting into a suicide attempt. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and many mental health organizations strongly recommend taking all suicide threats and talk of wanting to die seriously. Do not write these behaviors off as teen melodrama. It’s better to overreact than to underreact.

Listen, Listen, Listen—and Talk

If you’re worried your child is thinking about suicide, ask them about it. Don’t let suicide remain a taboo topic. Your calm approach and assurance that there is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed may be the signal they need to open up. Be ready to listen to their problems without minimizing them.

Don’t give up if your first try at opening a conversation doesn’t work. If we’ve trivialized their problems in the past (and we all have), it may take time for your teen to confide in you. Keep listening and keep offering a judgment-free ear.

“Teen problems can seem minor to us, but remember how significant things like friends, school, and relationship problems were to you at that same age.”

Remove Opportunity

As mentioned in the first part of this series, access to lethal methods is a huge risk factor for suicide. If your teen is battling depression, mental illness, or having suicidal thoughts, take action. Lock up or remove guns, safely dispose of old medications and keep the rest under lock and key.

Get Professional Help

Whether it’s your pediatrician, a mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, or a grief counselor, there is a trained professional that can help your teen through their specific problems like depression, grief, substance abuse, or other mental health problems. Getting help early can make all the difference. Beginning treatment also does not mean your child will need life-long psychiatric care.

     Four ways to get help:

  • In an emergency, call 1-800-SUICIDE or 9-1-1.
  • Speak with your pediatrician, who can refer you to a mental health professional that specializes in child and teen needs.
  • Go to your local emergency room: they are equipped to perform a psychiatric evaluation.
  • Use the SafeUT app for a confidential, real-time intervention for yourself, your child, or a friend.

“If your teen threatens to commit suicide, take it seriously, even if you think your child is just doing it for attention. A cry for help is a cry for help, and it is better not to take the risk.”

Support Their Recovery

The prescribed treatments and appointments for your child’s recovery may go on for months and will require a lot of your time and investment. Even if your teen seems to be doing better, it’s important to follow through on all appointments. Suicidal thoughts can come and go, and your teen needs to develop healthy coping skills in case they return.

Treatment takes time to work. Help your child have realistic expectations and not be hard on themselves if they don’t begin to feel better immediately.

Keep Tabs on Free Time

The AAP recommends against excessive alone-time and downtime for kids battling suicidal thoughts. We don’t need to stuff their schedules with activities, but there are several ways we can ensure free time is helping, not hurting, their mental state.

  • Know where your teen is going and who they are with. Does their friend’s house have firearms? Will there be a parent in the home?
  • Share your concerns with trusted adults that spend time with your child. Teachers, youth group leaders, school counselors, and close family members can help keep an eye out for warning signs when you cannot be present.
  • Minimize time spent on social media, which has many studies link to rising levels of depression and isolation.
  • -Service projects of all kinds can also help shift your child’s focus away from their own problems and help them gain perspective. Helping others also helps boost our own self-image.
  • Show your teen how to get confidential help, if they are ever in crisis and can’t (or won’t) reach out to you.

Encourage Exercise

For a child or teen struggling with depression, the AAP recommends frequent exercise even if it’s only walking. Not only has regular exercise been shown to take the edge off depression and boost self-esteem, walking together may provide the perfect context shift for your child to open up to you.

Help Your Teen to Help Others

Because suicides and attempts seem to trigger more of the same in a peer group, it’s possible one of your child’s friends is also struggling. Talking with teens about suicide and showing them how to access help equips them to respond if one of their friends is contemplating suicide. Talking about the reasons behind suicide and what to look for will allow them to connect with those who need it and realize there’s no place for shame or blame in matters of mental health.

Not only could these conversations help save someone else’s child, they may be the shortcut you need to keep an open dialogue with your child about the progress of their recovery.

More resources:

National Suicide Prevention Line

SafeUT App

Preventing Youth Suicide – Tips for Parents and Educators (National Association of School Psychologists)

Suicide Prevention (NIMH)

Crisis Connections: Suicide Training for Groups and Schools

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