How do I respond if my teen threatens suicide?
It can be very scary to hear your child or teen say they want to be dead or reveal that they’re thinking about ending their own life. Some parents don’t want to believe their child is having these thoughts and might respond with, “Oh you don’t mean that,” or reassure themselves that their child hasn’t had mental health problems before so surely they are fine. Other parents immediately put their child to the car and drive to the local emergency room without asking a single question. But what’s the “Wise Mind” response? Is there a way to respond that first and foremost keeps your child safe but also shows your child that you are really listening and hear their pain so they are more likely to open up to you about their feelings in the future?
First of all, if your child is in immediate danger, take them to the nearest Emergency Room, call the police or a mental health professional for evaluation. By immediate danger, I mean that the youth is has a plan to end their own life, intends to act on that plan and may have even started taking steps to enact that plan (locating a rope, writing a letter, etc.). If your child is in this situation (especially if they’re not willing to talk about how to keep themselves safe), please get to a mental health professional immediately. If you’re child is holding a bottle of pills, has grabbed a rope, is trying to drive to a local bridge or made any other indication that they are going to try to kill themselves right away, then your first job is to keep them by your side until you can get professional help.
That said, what if you teenager is having more “passive” thoughts or making statements such as, “Maybe I’d be better off dead?” Perhaps your teen has made a veiled comment like, “You’ll regret saying that if I kill myself,” or, ‘I just can’t handle this anymore!” In the immediate moment, I urge you to ask some direct questions and closely listen to your teen. Try first to understand what they are feeling. While you may be tempted to immediately “fix” their problems, if the first thing out of your mouth is, “It’s not really that bad,” or, “Don’t be silly, everyone loves you,” then they’re less likely to open up to you in the future. If you instead show that you are trying to understand where they are coming from, they will know it’s safe to talk to you.
Some questions you may ask your teen include:
- How often have you had these thoughts?
- What specifically do you say to yourself?
- Have you thought about how or when you would kill yourself?
- Do you plan to act on these thoughts?
- Are you willing to help me take steps to keep you safe?
- This can include giving up items that could be used to hurt oneself, sleeping in a room with another person or visiting with a mental health professional
- What do you think would be helpful for you in this moment?
Directly Asking About Suicide
Please do not be afraid to directly ask your youth about suicidal thoughts. Research has shown that directly asking these questions won’t make a teen suddenly decide to commit suicide, but it may very well save their lives by painting a clear picture for you of the thoughts they are already having.
Disclaimer: I do not know your individual child
Please note that I am not giving advice about how to handle your individual situation but rather trying to provide some general information for parents to consider when faced with this very scary situation. If your teen has suicidal thoughts, it is important that a mental health professional assess your youth and give you advice that is tailored to your unique situation.
Help Through Counseling
If your child has made comments about suicide, I strongly encourage you to help your child find a therapist that they really connect with to address these thoughts. A blog post with some helpful tips on choosing a therapist can be found here. I also recommend that you involve your child in the process of choosing their own therapist. If you are looking for a counselor for your teen or child of any age in the Columbia, MO area, please call Aspire Counseling at 573-328-2288 today or contact us through our website. You can read about our youth counseling services here and learn about each of our current therapists. Our intake coordinator work hard to make sure that every new client is paired with the right therapist, and will take the time to help your teen find someone with the knowledge, experience and personality to begin to gain control over these scary thoughts to create a life worth living!
Jessica Tappana, LCSW is the founder of Aspire Counseling, a Columbia, MO counseling center that specializes in treating trauma, grief, anxiety/fear and those who are going through a stressful period in their life. She believes in creating a welcoming therapy environment so people of all walks of life can find emotional healing, peace and joy. Jessica enjoys writing blog posts that give people hope and practice advice about how to improve their mental health. In her spare time, Jessica enjoys spending time with her family, cheering at MU sporting events (go Tigers!) and traveling.