Sometimes it’s hard to be a parent.
While you can muddle your way through a lot of the challenging issues your kids present, addressing self-destructive or suicidal behavior is generally not one of them. Yet, these situations are an unfortunate reality in the lives of youth today
So how do you recognize that your child may be at risk for suicide?
It starts by acknowledging that suicide is a reality for today’s youth – even those that come from good homes. It is not about parenting skills – at its simplest, it is a sign that a child is in a vulnerable place. Young people who are thinking clearly do not think about suicide as a solution to life problems.
The next step is to pay attention to your child’s behavior. Are you noticing any changes in behavior?
For example, students who were active may become withdrawn, quit athletic teams or social clubs, stop paying attention to their personal appearance, daydream, or even fall asleep in the classroom. Have you heard any threats? Were there any situations that could serve as triggers, such as getting into trouble at home, in school, or with legal authorities or relationship problems?
It’s important to keep these warning signs – or FACTS – in mind when your paying attention to your child’s behavior:
- FEELINGS like expressing hopelessness about the future, seeming sad and unhappy, being anxious and worried, or getting angry and aggressive.
- ACTIONS like withdrawing from activities or friendships, doing risky, dangerous things like drinking & driving, or researching ways to die online.
- CHANGES in the normal mood and behavior of your child. In some ways, this may be what is easiest for you to notice. If you observe changes that concern you, reach out to others in your child’s life (i.e., teachers, friends, religious leaders) to see if they’ve also noticed changes.
- THREATS are sometimes direct like “I’d rather be dead”. They can also be vague like “I just don’t care about anything anymore.”
- SITUATIONS are events that can serve as triggers for the suicidal behavior. These can include things like getting into trouble at home or school or with the law, experiencing some type of loss or facing a life change that the child finds overwhelming.
If you notice any warning signs – or FACTS – what do you do?
Take your observations seriously – even if your child is not thinking about suicide, there is no harm in asking. Research has proven that asking about suicide cannot plant the idea in someone’s mind. It can actually be a relief if the person has been keeping suicidal thoughts secret – it exposes them to the light of day and begins the process of getting help.
How do you bring up the subject?
Directly! Say something like: “You haven’t been yourself lately. I’ve noticed some things that concern me.”
At this point, mention those changes you noticed, then follow up with a statement like: “I’ve heard that sometimes when kids act the way you do, they may think life isn’t worth living anymore. Have you ever thought about taking your life?”
LISTEN to the answer!
If your child responds affirmatively, ask them to tell you more:
- When they think about suicide
- How often they think about it
- If they have a plan or have practiced it
Positive answers to these questions, especially the last one, mean you need to get your child help immediately! It is also important that you immediately remove all the things in your house that could be deadly, especially firearms and medication (both prescription and over the counter drugs). Keep them somewhere else (outside the home) until you are sure the risk of suicide has passed.
Finally, consider counseling for your child.
Your family doctor may be a good starting point for finding a mental health provider who works with children and youth, but do not wait. Make sure your doctor understands the concern is about suicide risk. If you are worried that your child is at immediate risk of self-harm, call your local mental health crisis support team, or go to your local emergency department.
If you are unsure of what to do:
There are special hotlines you can call or text:
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988, or chat on their website
- Crisis Text Line: Text “GOT5” to 741-741
Resources for Parents
- What every parent should know
- What every parent should know (Spanish version)
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide parent page
- Infographic on Suicide Proofing your Home
- School Mental Health Resource and Training Center – Parent Resources
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Teens & Suicide: What parents should know
- How To Help Someone Experiencing Emotional Distress
- Crisis Text Line – It’s For Everyone video
- Mayo Clinic parent video