It's devastating for any parent or guardian to think that their child may be considering suicide. However, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10-24.(1) In 2019, 19% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide. LGBTQ students are at greater risk, with 47% of youth seriously considering suicide.(2)
While these statistics can seem overwhelming, as a parent you are in a key position to protect and support your child.
In this blog post, we'll discuss the warning signs to watch for, the factors that can contribute to suicide risk, and how to best support your child. We'll also provide information on crisis services and when to seek professional help.
Suicidal behaviors can range from thinking about suicide, to attempting suicide, to committing suicide.
As a guardian, it's important to understand the different types of behaviors:
- Suicide: When someone purposely takes their own life.
- Suicide attempt: When someone tries to take their own life, but they are unsuccessful.
- Suicide ideation: When someone thinks about taking their life.
Suicidal ideation is more common than actual attempts. And suicidal attempts are more common than suicides, but all suicidal behaviors should be taken seriously.
Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior in Children
As a parent, the first step is to learn the warning signs of suicide. Warning signs are not always obvious, and not every child exhibits the same signs—so pay attention to changes in behavior, mood, or thinking patterns.
Warning signs of suicidal behavior can include:(3,4)
- Talking about wanting to die, disappear, or hurt oneself
- Drawing or engaging in play about suicide
- Stating that they are a burden to others
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Making a plan, giving away possessions, putting affairs in order
- Increased alcohol or drug abuse
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Mood swings
- Risky or reckless behavior
It’s normal for children to have good and bad days. But if you notice negative behavior changes that persist, a preoccupation with death, or a marked personality change—take these signs seriously.
Several risk factors can increase the likelihood that a child will attempt or die by suicide, such as:(4,5)
- Prior suicide attempt
- A mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder
- Chronic physical health problem
- Exposure to violence, whether it be through direct experience, witnessing, or media
- Family history of suicide
- History of trauma or abuse
- Knowing someone who recently attempted or died by suicide
- Loss of a loved one, whether it be through death or divorce
- Access to weapons and/or other life-threatening means (medications, alcohol, ropes, sharp objects)
Protective Factors Against Suicide
We also know that there are a number of protective factors that can help children and teens avoid suicidal behaviors.
- A strong and supportive network of family and friends
- Access to effective medical and mental health care
- A good sense of self-esteem and purpose
- Being involved in activities and interests that give life meaning
- Religious or cultural beliefs that discourage suicide
- Strong problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills
Bolstering these protective factors in a child's life are key to suicide prevention.
How to Help Your Child
When children have adults in their lives who are supportive and invested in their well-being, they can thrive—even in tough times.
Here is how to support your child you suspect may be having suicidal thoughts.
Look Out for the Warning Signs
A child who is feeling suicidal may not come out and say it. They are also not likely to seek help on their own. Learn the warning signs and recognize any changes in your child's behavior.
Start the Conversation
If your child is exhibiting any warning signs, you should:
- Talk to them about it. This might be one of the most challenging conversations you have with your child, but it's important to have an open and honest conversation.
- Stay calm and listen without judgment.
- Ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide. For example, "Have you thought about killing yourself?" This can be very difficult, but it's critical to ask directly. Sometimes parents are afraid to ask because they think it will plant the idea, but research shows that this is not true. Asking shows that you are concerned and want to help and does not increase suicidal thoughts or behaviors..
- Take their thoughts and feelings seriously.
- Avoid lecturing, judging, or shaming them.
Hearing that your child is thinking about suicide can be highly distressing. It's important to remain calm and offer compassion. Children need to know that it's okay to talk about these feelings and that they won't be judged. Make sure they know you love them and are there to help them work through their difficulties.
What to Do When Your Child Expresses Suicidal Thoughts
If you see any signs of suicidal thoughts, it's time for professional help. Even if you're not completely sure, or you do not sense an immediate emergency—get additional help.
Seek the support of your child's school services and/or a community mental health professional. Remember, the child's wellbeing and support system are key protective factors against suicide.
If you are worried that your child is in immediate danger or is about to attempt suicide, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.
There are numerous crisis support lines available 24/7 to help people in distress.
Anyone can contact the following crisis lines:
- Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 (Call or Text)
- Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741
Both of these services are free and will connect you with a trained crisis counselor.
Share these numbers with your child, or place a flyer with the numbers in a visible spot in your home, like on the refrigerator.
Consider being an advocate at your child's school and sharing these resources with school leaders.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Take emergency measures if you believe your child is about to attempt suicide or is in imminent danger. Call 911 or take them to the nearest hospital.
If you are concerned about your child's mental health, don't wait to get professional help. You can start by talking to your child's doctor, school counselor, or a pediatric mental health professional.
A health provider can help you and your child develop a safety plan that includes:
- A list of warning signs and triggers of suicidal thoughts
- Internal coping strategies and ways to manage difficult emotions
- Names and contact information of trusted friends and family
- Emergency and professional resources
Effective mental health care is one of the most important factors in suicide prevention. Look for mental health clinicians trained to work specifically with children experiencing suicidal thoughts. Therapists can help your child learn more effective strategies for coping with intense negative emotions and stressors.
Even if suicide is not an immediate concern, mental health concerns can become more serious if left untreated.
Handspring is Here to Help
Children thrive when they have a strong community of support around them. As a parent, you play a vital role in your child's life, but you don't have to do it alone.
Handspring is here to provide expert guidance and mental health care for children who are struggling. Our clinicians are specialists, trained in evidence-based practices for suicide prevention in children and adolescents. We can provide your family with the support you need to help your child heal and thrive.
Looking for quality mental health care for your child? Click here to book your free consultation.