Don’t let the subject of suicide be difficult to talk about, 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. This article addresses:
- Why you should always discuss suicide with a child
- How to respond if there’s been a threat
- How to respond if there’s been an attempt
As a parent, you talk about many uncomfortable subjects with your child; suicide must be one of them.
First, take a few deep breaths.
Suicide is just another sensitive subject, even though it brings up troubling emotions. Like other difficult subjects–sexual abuse and “stranger danger”–you want your child to feel safe talking with you about them. It can be very difficult for a child to bring these up to parents.
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 threatened it. Children as young as 10 and 11 have attempted or completed suicide. The highest suicide risk years are between the ages 10 to 24.
Talk with your child. Don’t leave him or her alone with suicidal thoughts.
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..
Why might my child consider suicide?
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.
This diagram can help assess your child’s risk.
What things in this diagram can you control and change at home?
What mental and physical health treatment do the child and other family members need (especially you)?
For things you cannot change, have family team meetings, work together to get through tough times safely.
What can trigger thoughts of suicide? Two examples:
Oregon: Survey results provided these reasons behind an exceptionally high suicide rate among 10-24 year olds, 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 State: 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 suicide 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 (my hunch is that they were intended to fail), but 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 real in some situations, but manipulative in others. 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 response; is there a better one?” “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–people who 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 biopsychosocial 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; ensure everyone gets healthy sleep; express love and appreciation; neglect no one including yourself; create a few simple house rules that are always enforced.
- In social and online life – learn as much as you can about the nature of your child’s relationships, whether romantic or social. Suggest ideas if they stress 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 – A working diagnosis and mental health treatment. And help them find outlets for self-expression: journaling, music, art, poetry, or a website where teens help teens. Mind Your Mind is an excellent example.
What if my child already 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.
Pay attention to events that trigger suicide (see the charts above).
Check-in with your child when something tragic 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. This is an emergency, act immediately.
You have the power to prevent a child’s suicide. Be strong. You can do this.
Take care of yourself!