When you start to suspect or discover your child is struggling with suicidal thoughts, it’s easy to feel devastated, confused, hopeless — or all of the above. Whatever feelings you are experiencing are completely valid, but before you fall into a spiral of self-defeating thoughts like, “Where did I go wrong?,” it’s important to understand suicide is complex and kids can (and do) struggle with suicidal thoughts sometimes.
According to licensed professional counselor Justin Henderson, Ph.D., it’s helpful to know some of the typical “warning signs” a child or teen might be considering suicide. Below are a few behaviors to look out for:
- Displays of “negative” emotions like sadness or anger that last for two weeks or longer
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Decreased energy
- Social withdrawal
- Lowered appetite
- Giving away possessions
- Noticeable preoccupation with death
- Substance abuse
- Downturn in school performance
- Engaging in risky behaviors
Every child is different, so one child’s “warning signs” might look vastly different than those of another child. Some children and teens don’t display warning signs at all, so as a parent, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in your child’s life (situationally and emotionally).
If you think your child or teen might be considering suicide, one of the most important things you can do is talk to them about it directly. If you’re worried bringing up suicide will put ideas in your child’s mind, have no fear — that’s a myth.
“The number one point that is consistently expressed across the suicide literature is that it is appropriate to ask your child directly if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts,” Lukasz Urban, Psy.D., who specializes in trauma and depression, told The Mighty. “By asking this question you are not putting any thoughts in their mind that are not there, and are not influencing them in any way. You are simply showing concern for your child’s well-being.”
It’s normal to feel nervous about talking to your child about suicidal thoughts. Because of this, we wanted to give you tangible tips for navigating this sensitive conversation. With the help of members of our Mighty mental health community, we’ve compiled a list of gentle ways to ask your child if they are contemplating suicide. As you read, think about what option sounds most natural to you, and consider practicing your approach with a trusted adult in your life, like a friend, co-parent or therapist.
As a rule of thumb, when talking to your child about suicide, the more non-judgmental, understanding and loving you can be, the better. It’s not just about what you say, it’s also how you say it. Use a warm tone, show physical affection and listen. Refrain from giving advice like, “Just think positive” or focusing on how much their suicidal feelings hurt you as a parent. This conversation is not the time to unload your feelings — process those with trusted adults in your life. Remember, your child might be in a lot of emotional pain, and is not having suicidal thoughts to hurt you.
Here are eight gentle ways you can ask your child if they are thinking about suicide:
1. ‘Have you been thinking about suicide?’
Sometimes the best approach is the most direct one. Directly naming the word — suicide — shows that you as a parent are not afraid, ashamed or judging your child for any suicidal feelings they might be having.
“The actual words to use can vary depending on what seems most natural to you, but I typically ask, ‘Are you having any thoughts about harming yourself?’ or ‘Are you thinking about taking your life?’ or ‘Have you been thinking about suicide?’” Urban told The Mighty.
2. ‘Do you feel like you don’t want to be in this world anymore?’
Asking a younger child if they are thinking about suicide can be tricky to word, especially if they don’t fully understand the concept of suicide. This example gets to the point, but in a way a child will understand.
“I’m a nurse, so I simply ask… I find the easiest and most direct way without judgment or condemnation is simply to ask, ‘Do you feel like you want to hurt yourself enough to not be in this world anymore?’ I use a tone of voice that shows love and concern and I don’t ask anything else. I simply state, ‘I’m going to help you and we will work through this together.’” — Shelley H.
3. ‘Do you want to close your eyes and never wake up?’
This is a great (and developmentally appropriate) way to ask children if they are having suicidal thoughts, particularly if they are not old enough to fully understand suicide.
“For younger kids, ‘Do ever feel like you want to sleep and never wake up?’ [or] ‘Does it sometimes feel like you don’t want to be here?’ If they say yes, without giving suggestions, [ask] would they ever do anything to make that happen?” — University of Cincinnati-Association of Black Social Workers
4. ‘Do you feel safe with yourself?’
It’s important to make sure your child is safe. If you find out they don’t feel safe with themselves, acknowledge that what they are going through is truly difficult and it’s your priority to keep them safe because you love them.
“I think the best thing to ask someone is, ‘Do you feel safe with yourself?’ It may sound like an odd choice of words, but to someone who is struggling, it can make so much sense.” — Julia A.
5. ‘I love you so much and I’m worried about you. Are you thinking about dying?’
Leading with love and support can make a child or teen feel safe sharing difficult feelings they are experiencing.
“I think it depends on the age and maturity level of the child. I always started with, ‘I love you so much and I’m worried about you. I hope we can talk openly together.’” — Heidi W.
6. ‘How are you feeling?’
“How are you feeling?” can be a good way to open up an emotional conversation with your child. If you choose to go this route, make sure in the conversation you also ask directly if your child is thinking about suicide, otherwise you might leave the conversation unsure.
“I think a great question to ask the child would be, ‘How do you feel about your life?’ This is such a broad question but it opens up a line of conversation to see if there is anything you can either ask further questions about or have reason for concern.” — Beth M.
7. ‘Are you feeling hopeless right now?’
If you’re worried your child is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, naming specific feelings in your question can open up the conversation. This particular question gives the child the opportunity to say, “Yes, I’m feeling hopeless,” or respond “No,” and clarify what they are actually feeling.
“Do you ever feel hopeless? Are you feeling hopeless right now?” — Tanya L.
8. ‘Do you have any plans on hurting or killing yourself?’
To determine the severity of the suicidal thoughts your child may be experiencing, ask if they have a plan for either ending their life or hurting themselves. If they have a plan in place, it’s your job as a parent to get them mental health support immediately.
Do you have other gentle ways to ask a child or teen if they are contemplating suicide? Join the conversation below to let us know.
If you determine your child is thinking about suicide, it’s important to continue checking in on their mental health, and supporting them in their recovery process. Below are four things we recommend for providing ongoing support to your child:
1. Find Your Child a Therapist They Trust
If after talking to your child, you find out they have been considering suicide, connect them to a mental health professional they can trust. In fact, studies have shown that a positive relationship between therapist and client is a better predictor of successful treatment than any one treatment intervention.
“The most important way to support children struggling with suicidal thoughts is to seek out a mental health provider and support their on-going work with that provider,” Jennifer Brown, licensed professional counselor intern and clinical coordinator for The Journey School of Houston Clinical Services, told The Mighty. “This sends a message to children that adults take their feelings and experiences seriously, and that the adult or parent can help keep them safe, even if the child is unsure about their own ability to stay safe.”
2. Create a Safety Plan With Your Child
Both Brown and Henderson believe it’s important to create and implement a safety plan. Typically, a safety plan includes a list of numbers to call when you’re in crisis and ways you can distract yourself when you’re feeling suicidal. This is something you can create with your child and your child’s therapist. For an example of a suicide safety plan, check out this template from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“Parents can help their child make a safety plan for themselves, and check in frequently about that plan with both the child and the child’s mental health provider. Part of that plan can be what the parent will do in order to help the child stay safe,” Brown explained.
3. Talk Openly and Honestly About Emotions at Home
Developing a culture of openness when talking about emotions can be invaluable to children. If children are safe to both feel and express their feelings, it will be much easier to have difficult talks about suicidal feelings.
“At home, parents can talk openly and objectively about uncomfortable and difficult feelings (anger, sadness, disappointment) that their child may be experiencing while giving their child room to have that experience in a safe and contained environment,” Brown said.
4. Seek Help for Yourself
Caring for a child struggling with suicidal thoughts can be difficult, so it’s vital that you are taking care of yourself as well.
“Parents of suicidal children and adolescents typically report feelings of shame, guilt and loneliness,” Henderson told The Mighty, adding:
I commonly advise parents of suicidal children and adolescents to not go through the help-seeking and treatment process alone. While the child is getting help, parents should seek support for themselves as well. I often like to propose the following question to parents: How can you help your child reach their best, if you are not at your best? It is not selfish to consider your emotional and psychological needs and actively taking steps to engage in self-care.
If you are struggling with the news that your child is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Seek out support groups in your area specifically geared towards parents supporting children with mental health struggles — the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a support group finder tool you can check out here.
And, of course, you can always reach out to our Mighty community. We encourage you to post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #CheckInWithMe. You don’t have to go through this alone.