Parenting mother helping child

I think my child might be suicidal. What should I do as a parent or guardian?

It can be scary to hear your child talk about suicide. You’re not alone – suicidal thoughts are common among children and adolescents in the United States. It’s important to take this seriously, even if you think it could never happen to your child. While most children and teenagers who think about suicide never go on to kill themselves, children as young as 5 years old have died by suicide. The good news is that there are ways that you, as a parent or guardian, can keep your child safe and help get them on track to mental wellness.

1. Practice safety first

If you are concerned that your child has already done something to hurt themselves, or if you are concerned in any way about their immediate danger, call 911 or take your child to the emergency room.

If you or your child needs to talk to someone right away, call your county’s 24/7 free crisis line:

2. Know the signs

Children and adolescents who die by suicide have almost always signaled their feelings in some way to others. Know what signs to look for, and if your child is exhibiting any of those signs or if you are concerned about their mental health for any other reason, take action.  

  • Talking or writing about death or suicide
  • No longer enjoys the thing they used to love
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Big mood swings
  • Not coping well with a significant loss or change
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increase in social isolation (won’t leave bedroom, doesn’t want to talk to friends)
  • Running away or other dangerous choices
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Talking about suicide directly
  • Says that they feel hopeless or trapped
  • Seems more irritable or agitated than usual
  • Self-harm
  • Problems with grades
  • Feeling very alone or thinking that their family will be better off without them
  • Identifying as gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer and feeling rejected by family or friends

3. Manage your own feelings

If immediate safety is not a concern, take a deep breath. Your child shared very important information with you. It’s normal to feel a whole range of emotions. Maybe you already suspected something is wrong and are relieved to finally know what. You might feel angry and wonder why your child isn’t more appreciative of all the things you have done for them. You might feel scared that something bad will happen to your child. Maybe a friend or relative told you to ignore or even punish this kind of “back talk”. Please know that it’s normal to feel a variety of feelings about this. Your feelings are valid and real. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your feelings, keep a journal, or consult with a therapist. It is also important that you (or another trusted adult) engage with your child to get help. Your child’s safety could be at risk and it’s important to act quickly.

4. Ask your child

If possible, wait until things are relatively calm. Remind yourself to listen more than you talk, and try to keep an open mind to what your child has to say. Ask them directly. Say things like:

  • What did you mean when you said you wanted to die?
  • I noticed cut marks on your arm. What’s up?
  • Please tell me more about how you feel.
  • I’m here to listen. I want to help you feel better.
  • You are not in trouble right now. This is a time for me to understand how to help.
  • I’m so glad you told me about these feelings. We need to talk about what to do next because you deserve to feel better.

Do not try to talk them out of how they feel. Their feelings are as real and valid as yours. Don’t say “you would never do that” or “only crazy people say that”, because that will make it harder for your child to explain their feelings to you. If you don’t feel like you can have this conversation with your child in a helpful way, it’s OK – find a trusted family member or friend and ask them to help.

If you are worried that your child “just wants attention”, remember – children and adolescents seek connection with others. If your child is threatening to hurt or kill themselves to get your attention, help them connect with you in a more appropriate way instead.

5. Keep an open mind

You and your child might have completely different perspectives on their life. Now is not the time to remind them of all the good things they have. Now is the time to show your child that you care about their perspective, and really listen to what they have to say. Maybe your child has been struggling with a brain illness like depression or anxiety. Maybe they are being bullied by others or hurt in some way and don’t know how to cope. Maybe they are bothered by something that happened to them in the past. Maybe you talk to them and still don’t really understand why they feel the way they do. It’s ok. The most important thing is to listen to your child.

6. Find help

If your child is showing warning signs of suicide or talking about suicide, don’t try to handle it on your own. It’s important that you consult with a professional. Your child might try to minimize their feelings or say “I won’t talk to a counselor”. If your child refuses to talk to someone, you can go by yourself. If you are worried about paying for mental health care, call us at 651-280-2310. 

Your child just shared important and hard information with you. They are counting on you to take the next step and help them feel better.

Sara NelsonMSW, LICSW is a Senior Clinical Supervisor in Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness.

 

Wilder supports our community with mental health and wellness services for children, adults and families. We accept insurance and a sliding scale is available for clients with no insurance. We can also help your family apply for Medical Assistance, provide case management support, or find community resources. We have staff that speak several languages, including Hmong, Karen, Burmese, Somali, Oromo, Khmer and Spanish. Call 651-280-2310 to talk to us or request your appointment online.