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Talking with Your Teen About Suicide

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — September 8, 2020 — 6 min read
Suicide—many people don’t talk about it until after it happens. Suicide can be an especially difficult topic for parents to approach with their teens. Some may believe that talking about suicide is harmful to their child. However, licensed mental health professionals agree that facing this tough topic head-on is one way to lower the risk of suicide.

In other words, while it may be uncomfortable and scary, talking to your teen about suicide could save their life.

Teach Your Child About Mental Health

Start talking with your child or teenager about mental health regularly. Tackling some less difficult topics will prepare you for tougher conversations. Here are some ways you can start the conversation about mental health:

“I’m feeling emotionally worn out today. When I feel this way, I like to do something I really enjoy. Would you like to join me?”

“I’ve noticed that when you come home from school you go straight to your room, and it seems like you had a bad day at school. Is that true today?”

“Your aunt has a mental illness called depression. It means that she feels very tired and sad longer than most people. Let’s check in to see how she’s doing today.”

“When someone has a mental illness, it’s a lot like having a broken arm or diabetes. They might take medication, make changes to their daily routine, and allow themselves time to get better.”

Ask About Your Teen’s Mental Health Before They Show Signs of Suicide

While it doesn’t have to be every day, check in with your teen regularly about their mental health.  Even if they have nothing to say, they will get the message that you are interested and willing to talk about it. Check in on “good” and “bad” days. Here are some ways to get the conversation going:

Things to Ask When Your Teen Seems Happy or Normal:

“Hey, I know there is a lot going on at school this week. I just want to check in to see how you’re feeling.”

“You had the biggest smile on your face this morning. I’d love to know what made you so happy!”

“How’s your mental health?” On a scale of 1 to 10, how stressed have you been lately?”

Things to Ask When Your Teen Seems Sad, Angry, or Upset:

“Do you need some alone time? Ok—well know that when you’d like to talk about what happened, I’m right here.”

“You’ve seemed a bit off lately, like you don’t want to do things you used to. I wanted to check in to see if your mental health was doing ok.”

Tips for Responding to Your Teen

Just listen and repeat. Let your child talk and just listen. Repeat back what you think you heard them say. Hear them out and let them know you care about them and their feelings. Avoid saying things like, “That’s not a big deal” or “You think you have problems? Wait until you start paying the bills around here.”

Don’t immediately try to help. Parents want to keep their children from hurting. However, it’s important to let your teen learn to express and then manage difficult feelings. Give them space to solve their own problems first. If they ask for advice, go for it!

Share your own examples of hard times. Teens experience their emotions strongly and don’t have the experience to know that things will get better. It’s important to share your own examples of bad things that happened to you (break-ups, big fights with friends, failing grades) and how you coped. Explain how these things didn’t “ruin your life.” Most teens who commit suicide do it impulsively and accidently. They may not have actually wanted to die, but they make a mistake, and the attempt is fatal.

Do get them medical help if they ask for it or if you suspect mental illness. Trust your instincts. If your child is doing or saying things that make you worry about their mental health, get some additional help. Scheduling a consultation with your child’s pediatrician to discuss your concerns can be a good place to start.

MENTAL HEALTH SCREENING

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If You Think Your Teen Is Thinking About Suicide

There are warning signs of suicide risk* you can look for in your teen:
  • Making comments about their future death such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer”
  • Intense mood swings
  • Isolating themselves from friends, family, and activities they use to enjoy
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things such as driving recklessly or sneaking out with people they don’t know (these may seem like just “rebellious” behavior)
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Giving away belongings when there is no logical reason to do so
Source: Mayo Clinic

What to Do if You Think Your Teen is Considering Suicide

Get Help Immediately

If you think your teen is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. If you think your teen is having a mental health emergency, dial **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) on your cell phone. If they are not in immediate danger, read on to find out how to talk to your teen about suicide.

Ask Your Teen Directly

Some parents may feel uncomfortable asking their child directly if they’re thinking about suicide. Some might think they are putting the idea in their head. This is simply not true.

Be brave. Pull your teen aside and ask: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” While it will be uncomfortable and difficult, it is one of the most effective ways to prevent suicide. If they say yes, follow the steps below.

Ask About Self-Harm

If your teen says no to the above question, then ask them: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Many parents are afraid to say, “killing yourself,” so they would rather use the word “hurting.”

However, it’s important to be straightforward at first. Only after you have confirmed with your child that they are not considering suicide (or won’t admit it), then you can ask the second question.

Ask Them Why

If your teen says they are considering killing themselves or hurting themselves (or if they are already hurting themselves), ask them why. You might ask, “What are you thinking about right before you have thoughts of killing yourself?” While they may not be able to give you an answer, you are showing that you are ready to listen and understand that they are struggling.

Do Not Get Angry or Upset in Front of Them

You have a right to feel negative emotions. However, as the parent you need to be your teen’s safe space—especially if they are considering suicide. Avoid showing your anger or distress in front of them. Instead, hug them and reassure them that you love and support them.

Get Help ASAP

If your child admits to considering suicide or self-harm, be responsive and caring, but do not take on the role of mental health professional. Get them help as soon as possible.

Even if your teen is not hurting themselves or thinking of suicide, you should still take them to see a mental health professional if they are showing concerning symptoms. They can then be evaluated by someone who can decide what steps should be taken.
 
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