To most parents, the idea of talking with their teens about suicide provokes a great deal of anxiety. If you are the parent of a teenager, you may feel awkward about broaching the subject or wonder why you should even bring it up.
The reality is that such a discussion can be literally life-saving. Suicide among adolescents has tripled over the last 25 years and is currently the third leading cause of death for this age group. And for every completed suicide, there are approximately 60 unsuccessful adolescent suicide attempts.
Whether your teenager shows signs of suicidal risk or not, it’s worthwhile to have a conversation about the issue. A natural opportunity for such dialogue can occur with the suicide death of an acquaintance or public figure. You can begin a discussion about how young people particularly find it difficult to make the best decisions when they are under stress, as their sense of perspective is still developing. Tell your teenager that you know that he or she will suffer a difficult loss someday or make what seems to be a horrible mistake. Let your loved one know that, when that day comes, you will be there for them, and that they will get over the pain. You can even brainstorm about positive alternatives to suicide.
But what if you are worried than your own teen may be considering suicide? First, be aware of the common signs, such as:
- Recent talk about death, suicide or “going away;”
- Expressing thoughts of guilt, hopelessness, or extreme sadness;
- Giving away possessions;
- Avoiding friends, family, and favorite activities;
- Having difficulty concentrating or thinking logically;
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits;
- Being self-destructive; e.g., cutting, abusing alcohol or drugs.
If you are concerned that your teen may be at risk, don’t be afraid to raise the subject immediately. It’s absolutely untrue that discussing suicide increases one’s risk – keeping silent is the greater danger. Start with a comment or two about your concern, such as: “You have seemed really sad to me lately – can you tell me what’s going on?”
If your teen doesn’t open up, you can probe further and take a more direct approach; e.g., “I’m concerned about how you’re feeling. Do you ever feel like you just don’t want to go on?” Or: “You seem really depressed. Are you having any thoughts of hurting yourself?”
Following are a few “DOs” and “DON’Ts” to consider when talking to your teen:
- Encourage your teen to talk about his or her feelings.
- Let your teen do most of the talking – be a good listener. Let them vent, cry, or emotionally unload however they need to. No matter how negative the emotions, communicating them is a positive step.
- Provide reassurance and hope; e.g., “We’re in this together; I know you can get through this and will help in any way I can.” Remind them of your love and support, and reassure them that help is available and they won’t always have to feel this way.
- Develop an action plan. Try to get your teen to agree to a constructive course of action, such as seeking professional help, obtaining further information on coping with depression, etc. Ask your teen to try to hold off for just one more day or hour when they feel like they want to give up.
- Praise your teen for opening up and having the courage to talk about their problems.
- Make judgments about your teen’s feelings or thoughts; e.g., “What do you have to be sad about? You’ve got it made.”
- Use unkind words or criticisms; e.g., “I always have to worry about you” or: “Why can’t you get your act together?” Avoid arguments, lectures, or moral judgments.
- Minimize your teenager’s concerns; e.g., “You’re just overreacting. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
- Be afraid of silence. Wait calmly and patiently for your teen to reply to your questions.
- Offer pointless advice. Your job at this point is not to “fix” your loved one’s problem but to provide support and a listening ear.
If your teen is in an immediate crisis, try to assess the situation. Find out if your teen has an actual suicidal plan or the means of committing suicide. If so, seek immediate help through your local crisis center, mental health center, or emergency room. Make sure that any dangerous objects such as guns or knives are not in the vicinity, and do not leave your loved one alone under any circumstances until they are in professional hands.
Just as it sometimes takes courage to live when ending one’s life might seem less painful, it is an act of emotional courage for a parent to open up the difficult subject of suicide with their teenager. By starting the discussion, you may provide valuable support and information that will help your teen with future life choices.