Talking about suicide with your child can feel tricky and intimidating- what if you say the wrong thing? What if you offend them? What if bringing it up makes the problem worse? These are all normal concerns to have but overcoming these apprehensions could be life-saving for a teenager or anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Findings show that talking about suicide does not encourage someone to attempt suicide and, in fact, can be a great first step in preventing it. Opening the door to open, honest conversation can remove the shame and fear your child could be feeling and can help them feel supported.
Set the stage
Find a space and time where your child and you feel comfortable talking openly and make sure they know you are there to offer support, not judgement.
Be gentle but direct
Approaching your child with warmth and empathy are important but should not prevent you from being direct. It is okay to use the word ‘suicide’ when talking with your teen and you will likely get a clearer picture of the situation when using direct language (rather than saying “hurting yourself” or “doing something to yourself”).
Sometimes a child may be nervous to reveal their thoughts of suicide for fear of making their parent feel badly. Open the door by saying something like, “Some kids want to protect their parents from their difficult feelings and not make their parent feel bad. I want you to know even if it is scary or hard for me, I want you to tell me if you have any of these thoughts because I want to help no matter what.”
It can be so hard for parents to avoid jumping in with a “fix” but it is important to really listen to what your child is saying. While it may seem helpful to say things like “you know we care about you” or “don’t think that way- it will all be fine”, this could unintentionally downplay their struggle. Allowing your teen to speak freely can help both of you feel connected.
Get (the right) help
Talk to your child about seeking help and ask them what kind of provider/clinician they would be comfortable seeing, and follow through on that request.
Leave the door open
If your child shares that they are not currently struggling, it is helpful for them to know what they can do if those feelings come up later. Encourage them to share their feelings with you or a trusted adult, provide them with phone numbers for crisis hotlines (such as the ones listed below), and let them know to talk to you if they are worried about any of their friends.
If you feel that your child is in immediate danger and emergency measures need to be taken, call 911, call an emergency mental health line (resolve Crisis Services can be reached 24/7 at 1-888-796-8226), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Talking about suicide does not increase the chances of suicide occurring and stepping in to help your child could save their life!
To learn more about teen suicide prevention, facts about teen suicide, approaches to conversation, and talking about someone else who has taken their life, visit https://afsp.org/teens-and-suicide-what-parents-should-know
To get even better at talking about mental health, in general, visit https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/ and https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/population-focused-modules/youth/
Have you ever had a conversation with your child about heavier topics such as suicide? If so, how did it go, and what would you have done differently? If not, but you’ve wanted to, what prevented you from doing so?