Don’t be silent on the subject of suicide, even if there’s no evidence your child has considered it. Bring it in the open, especially if you have a hunch something is wrong and they may have suicidal thoughts. This article addresses:
- Why you should talk about suicide with your child
- How to respond if there’s been a threat
- How to respond if there’s been an attempt
Parents talk about many uncomfortable subjects with their child; and suicide must be one of them.
Don’t let suicide become a ‘sensitive’ subject. Your child needs to hear about it from you. They should feel safe talking about it. Don’t expect them to bring this subject up. They may fear you will overreact, and worsen their depression, or you could under-react or dismiss it because you’re uncomfortable. Neither response helps.
Won’t this give my child ideas and encourage suicidal thoughts?
No. Children usually know what suicide is and will have wondered about it—even young children. Ask what your child thinks. Children as young as 7 and 8 have asked about suicide or communicated they had suicidal thoughts. Children as young as 10 and 11 have attempted or completed suicide. The ages of highest suicide risk are between 10 to 24.
Talk with your child. Don’t leave him or her alone with thoughts or questions about suicide.
An 11-year-old boy died of suicide a couple of weeks before this article was written. There had been no prior signs. He killed himself after receiving a prank text saying his girlfriend had committed suicide. He told no one beforehand. His parents had no idea he was even at risk.
Why might my child become suicidal?
Mental health professionals assess risk by using the Biopsychosocial Model. The more negatives in the biological, social, and psychological aspects of one’s life, the higher the risk of suicide or other mental health problems.
The major risks of suicide are in the central part of this diagram: drug effects, temperament, IQ, family relationships, trauma.
What can you control and change at home?
What do you and family members need to reduce these risks?
Communicate about these with everyone. (Can be hard to do, but try.)
What can trigger suicidal thoughts?
Examples from two states that did the research:
Oregon: Survey results for an exceptionally high suicide rate among 10-24 year olds by population, 180 individuals in one year (“Suicide circumstances by life stage, 2013-2014”).
- 62% – Current depressed mood
- 53% – Relationship problems
- 47% – Current mental health problems
- 43% – Current/past mental health treatment
- 42% – History of suicidal thoughts/plans
- 31% – Recent/imminent crisis
- 22% – Family relationship problems
- 21% – Non-alcohol substance abuse problems
- 8% – School problem
New York: Life situations of children completing suicide, 88 individuals; (“Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years”, 2016)
- Feeling hopeless and worthless (often because of bullying at school, home, or online)
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- Physical illness
- Feeling detached and isolated from friends, peers, and family
- Family history of suicide, mental illness, or depression
- Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
- Access to a weapon in the home
- Knowing someone with suicidal behavior or who committed suicide, such as a family member, friend, or celebrity
- Coping with homosexuality in an unsupported family, community, or hostile school environmental
- Incarceration (time in juvenile detention or youth prison)
What if my child has threatened suicide?
A threat opens a door for a discussion. A good approach is to interview your child about their feelings, plans, needs, and reasons. Listen earnestly without input.* You might be surprised to find their problem is solvable, but their depressed mood paints it as hopeless. Listening helps them get clarity and feel heard and respected. Once you understand their problems, you assist them in identifying options and provide emotional support.
* I have a friend who worked for a suicide hotline, and he said the job wasn’t difficult at all. He said, “All I did was listen and show understanding of their feelings and just let them talk. “
After a frustrating discussion about my teenage daughter’s suicidal threats, I gave up and said “No. I’m telling you not to commit suicide.” She was incredulous; “You can’t tell me what to do! You can’t stop me!” I responded, “Don’t commit suicide. You’re important to us. You have important things to do in life.” She made a few attempts in the following years (they were always public… as if she wanted to be discovered and prevented), and she always reached out to her family afterwards for support. Did my words make a difference?
What if a threat is just for attention?
It’s hard to tell. It could be genuine or manipulative. Some children use threats to prevent parents from asserting rules. Angry children, especially teens, use threats to blame and hurt parents emotionally. If you think a threat is not genuine, open up the suicide discussion. “Talk to me about this”, “It seems like an extreme reaction to something we can fix.” “What needs to change?” “How can I help?” Focusing on the threat will either expose the ruse or draw out important information for addressing an underlying problem.
What else can I do if my child threatens suicide?
- Observe and investigate.
- Do they have access to unsafe objects or substances? You can legally search their room.
- Do they frequent unsafe places or spend time with people who encourage drug use?
- Do they have extreme mood swings (up or down), or a chronic dark mood?
- Do they take dangerous risks and seek dangerous activities?
- Are there any other danger signs?
- Build a network of eyes–choose people who will observe your child and keep you advised of risk, e.g. a mature sibling, a teacher, your child’s friend or the friend’s parents, your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend, a relative, or a trusted person who knows your child.
- Make changes you have control over, and solidly commit to these changes. Bring the whole family along on the plan. FOLLOW THROUGH.
- In family life – reduce chaos, fighting, blaming, or bullying; express appreciation; neglect no one including yourself; create 2 – 3 house rules that are easy to enforce and everyone follows, even you.
- In social and online life – learn as much as you can about the nature of your child’s relationships, whether romantic or social. Support them if they distress your child. Can they remove themselves from a toxic relationship? or cope effectively with anxiety? Can you help them address bullying at school or online?
- Biological health – Sleep, Exercise, Diet. Limit screen time at night because blue light inhibits sleep. Pay attention to digestive health, which affects mental health. These are some natural approaches.
- Psychological health – Ask a school counselor about your child. Seek a working diagnosis and mental health treatment. Help your child find outlets for personal self-expression: journaling, music, art, poetry, or a website such as this one, where teens help teens. Mind Your Mind is an excellent example.
What if my child attempted suicide?
He or she is still very fragile, even if in treatment! They have taken the action, they’ve been there, and have the option for taking it again—a high percentage try again. Suicide attempts are long-term emergencies. You need to be on alert in the following days, weeks, months, and possibly years. In addition to intensive mental and physical health treatment, ensure your child gets regular deep sleep, exercise, and a good diet. Ask them if they’ve had suicidal thoughts if you sense something is wrong. Don’t be shy about checking in.
Pay attention to events that trigger suicide.
Check-in with your child when something traumatic happens or might happen, especially if someone he or she knows attempted or committed suicide, or a suicide was in a TV drama or covered in the news. Triggers are an emergency, act immediately.
You have the power to prevent a child’s suicide.
Be strong. You can do this.
Take care of yourself.