According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 8% of American teens will attempt suicide each year. Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for kids aged 10 to 24. In fact, it is believed that more teenagers die from suicide than from cancer, pneumonia, birth defects, AIDS, influenza and heart disease combined.
According to studies, teens who have presented with a mood disorder or who abuse drugs are at the greatest risk of attempting suicide. While research suggests girls attempt suicide more often, boys more often die from it.
Unfortunately, there is still much stigma surrounding depression and suicide. This leads to kids often keeping their emotional pain to themselves instead of asking for help.
So, what can you as a parent of a teenager do to keep your child safe and healthy?
Talk to Your Teen
Many parents believe that trying to speak with their kids about their feelings will only push them farther away. This is plain wrong. In reality, teenagers need their parents to check in with them to know that they are safe and loved.
It’s best to check in with your child on a regular basis. Ask general questions about what’s going on in their life and more specific questions about how they are feeling and coping. When the time feels right, make sure to ask clearly if they have ever had thoughts of self-harm or suicide. It is also good to ask if any of their friends have talked about or attempted suicide. Also, be aware of any suicides at your child’s school, as that increases the risk of other teens attempting.
Validate Their Feelings
Once you’ve begun this sensitive conversation with your teen, it’s important to actively listen and validate your child’s feelings. You want to keep the conversation going as long as needed to really understand what is going on with your child. Try to stay calm and show a genuine interest to understand. You need to convey that you are a) hearing what they’re telling you and b) recognizing the importance of it. Focus on listening without judgement. This is your chance to gather information about your child’s inner world to help keep them safe.
Clarify the Situation
If your teen confides they are having thoughts of suicide, it’s incredibly important that you remain calm and ask questions that will help you clarify the situation. You will want to determine the nature of these thoughts and the level of danger to your child. Here are some examples of what you might find out.
Passive suicidal comments like,”I just want it all to stop” or “I just can’t take it anymore,” generally indicate your child is feeling overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to cope. You can help your child by offering increased supports. This may include spending more time with them, helping them work through a stressful situation, and offering to get them set up with a therapist to work on increasing their coping skills.
Other times, suicidal comments can be a means of getting something they need, like attention, or getting out of a situation that is causing them pain. With these comments, it is important to let your child know that you hear the need and try to redirect them to asking in a less extreme manner. Still asses for plan and intent, just in case you misread.
If your child does have a plan and indicates that they want to carry it out or that they don’t know if they can stop themselves, you need to get more help quickly. This is the time to take your child to the hospital or call for an ambulance. This is when it is most important to err on the side of caution and take your child’s warnings very seriously. Even if it turns out to be an extreme cry for help and not a serious threat, your child will know that you are listening and care. They will also get an intense dose of coping skills training at the hospital.
Seek Professional Guidance
Any talk of suicide is a serious matter and requires professional guidance by a trained therapist. It’s important not to force your teen into any treatment plan unless you feel that they are at immediate risk. Some of their depression might stem from the sense of lack of control they feel in their life, so it’s important you let them have a voice in the direction of treatment. That said, they might feel overwhelmed by trying to work out all of the details on their own, so try to find a balance. For instance, you might research therapists (be sure to call and make sure they are accepting new patients) and then show your teen the websites of your top 3 choices and ask them who they would be like to meet with.
It can also be helpful for parents to seek out treatment for themselves to work through your feelings and learn how to support your child through this difficult time.
I work with both teens and parents. Please feel free to contact me to discuss treatment for you or your child.