How to approach your child dealing with suicidal thoughts

Talking about youth suicide is the first step in saving a life.

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When reading this sentence as a parent or caregiver, what feelings do you notice emerging: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth/young adults ages 15-24. Is it sadness? Rage? Anxiety? Confusion? All these feelings can be expected due to the nature of this action. And whether you had direct exposure or not, suicide is an action that can leave us feeling powerless, wondering how we can intervene further.

If you are a caregiver who wants to support your child experiencing suicidal thoughts, here are 4 things you can do:

Educate yourself

The first step is to educate oneself about the warning signs of suicidal behaviors, as shared by Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Often, individuals will display verbal or behavioral cues that can predict future movement. And while we may not notice them all, we gain control by familiarizing ourselves. In addition, having awareness toward situational stressors (i.e., breakups, moving, getting kicked out of school, bullying) are also vital, to dictate intensity of suicidal thinking.

Check in with your emotions

The second step is to check in with your own emotions. As a caregiver, heightened levels of emotions can override one’s intentions, causing the approach to become compromised. This can be related to the emotional investment you have with your child, which can cause various emotions to surface (i.e., guilt, thoughts of failure, fear, stress). As a result, this can reduce the likelihood of expressing compassion when approaching your child. To reduce this risk, utilizing appropriate coping skills highlighted by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, parents and caregivers are encouraged to create room for self-reflection. At this time, enlisting support may be encouraged if emotions are still a concern. This can be anyone that is considered a trusted adult, like a spouse, family friend, or relative. This may lead to the supporter taking over if your child would respond better to them. Remember, even if it’s not directly from you, your child is getting the support they need.

Ask questions

The third step involves asking questions to clarify if your child is engaging in suicidal thinking. As you are approaching your child, there are multiple things to keep in mind:

  • Ensure the environment is private, to allow for child vulnerability and comfort.
  • Appear confident, with a calm voice, as empathy drives the conversation.
  • Maintain mindfulness within your emotions to maintain an emotionally safe environment.

Once you approach your child, here is an example of an appropriate question:

  • “I noticed you have been withdrawn lately. Is everything okay?”
    • Using the phrase, I noticed removes accusatory statements and reduces defensiveness.

If your child expresses additional concerns towards safety, here is an example of a follow up question:

  • “Given what you told me, are you thinking about killing yourself?”
    • It is important to use the word killing instead of harming, to ensure clarity within the question.

Seek ongoing support

The fourth step is to respond appropriately to what your child disclosed. If your child clarified they are not in a crisis, then continued monitoring and/or exploring professional services is ideal. However, if your child expressed suicidal thinking, then you are within a crisis. During this time, you can do the following:

  • Remove any unsafe items from your child.
  • Call or text 9-8-8 or call 9-1-1 for immediate support.
  • Stay with your child until the crisis has de-escalated. Utilize time to instill hope/compassion.

Talking to your child about suicide can bring immense discomfort, however it could be the first step of saving their life. By approaching your child with compassion and attempting to understand their emotions, you are reducing the odds of loneliness, which creates room for hope and recovery to be explored.

You can learn more ways to approach youth with suicidal thinking by taking Michigan State University Extension’s Youth Mental Health First Aid training or exploring various trainings for suicide prevention.

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