When your Teen Talks about Suicide
When your tween or teen directly expresses the thought or desire to harm them self or commit suicide, of course, it is alarming. It may seem to come out of the blue or be part of growing distress they are experiencing. Either way, when you become aware that your child or teen talks about self-harm or suicide, it is important to take some steps to ensure their safety.
If your child is a tween or a teen take it seriously. If they are younger, certainly don’t dismiss these big feelings however I’ll cover some different steps in another blog post.
How to approach talking
Understandably you may want to minimize their distressing words and help them gain perspective by telling them the situation isn’t so bad. However, instead, manage your own feelings at that moment so you don’t take over the conversation. Press “pause” on your judgment. Your job is to be present, curious and compassionate.
Do they have a plan?
Once your child has shared what they can of their distress. Ask them if they have a plan to act on their suicidal thoughts. Listen very carefully here. A child who is planning on acting will often have quite a detailed story with potential time and place. They will have most likely been running through the scenario in their head for a while so will have worked out the details. For others, they may not have let their thoughts drift over to the action piece but are still caught up in just wanting to be gone.
Can they keep themselves safe?
Ask your child if they feel they can keep themselves safe in the moment? Start to investigate what they need from themselves and from you to help keep themselves safe. Perhaps even make a list of things that will help remind them of what they need to feel safe. Help them minimize triggers to their emotional upset for at least the moment.
Based on the conversation, let them know what you are going to do to help them stay safe. Again, manage your emotions as you may feel punitive towards them as they are causing you so much distress. You are definitively the parent taking the lead in this moment however this must be a non-shaming, collaborative conversation. Let them know that you are going to make sure they are not alone for the next while and brainstorm the options. Remove objects from their easy access that may trigger them to harm themselves.
Talk about self-care. This is a moment to be a strong parent. Get the basics back in line with proper sleep, eating and physically active routines in place. Brainstorm relaxation activities. This could include some distractions like music or screens but make sure there is a broader variety such as journaling, a meditation app, drawing, snuggling the family pet and engaging with safe friends.
When to visit the hospital
If during this conversation it becomes apparent your child won’t work to keep themselves safe, it is time to decide if a visit to the hospital is prudent. You can also suggest a crisis line or even another safe adult to your child if they aren’t feeling very comfortable sharing all of this with you.
It is very easy for teens to be overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions. The struggle to fit in socially, succeed academically, please peers, parents and other adults is quite difficult. The added pressure of fitting in the world with the watchful eye of social media has amplified these pressures.
Teen counseling can support their ability to manage the big emotions and learn skills for navigating all the social, academic and family pressures. Suggesting the idea of getting a counselor they can talk to and trust is also an important support strategy.
by Leah Koenig MA, LMHC. Leah is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Family Therapist, and PCI Certified Parent Coach®. Leah specializes in working with children, teens, and parents on creating their best self and best family relationships.