Teen Suicide: What do parents need to know?

This week, Parenthetical is posting an article focused on the tough topic of teen suicide. This article provides parents with critical information on teen suicide, as well as important suggestions and resources to help support teens and families.

Your child has been behaving strangely recently. You’ve noticed she is spending less time with her friends. She says that she wants to quit the soccer team. She has been irritable, moody, and lashes out whenever you ask her a question. Last night, when you asked her if she had thought about what she would like to do on your upcoming family vacation, she responded with “I don’t know…it won’t matter then.” You worry because this behavior is so out of the ordinary. But could this just be teenage growing pains?

Admitting your child may be struggling with mental illness or is having thoughts about committing suicide is never easy. Many families do not think these will be issues that directly impact their lives. But recent reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention show us that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19. Additionally, high profile shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why have teens talking and thinking about this tough topic.

It can be overwhelming to think that your child may be having thoughts of harming themselves. But, there are steps every parent can take to help prevent (and reduce) these occurrences. For starters, taking the time to understand suicide is important.

Are some teens more at risk for suicide?
The causes of suicide are complicated, but research has helped to identify a set of factors that place some teens at higher risk than others. Personal histories of mental illness and substance abuse disorders are among the leading risk factors of suicide. Additionally, distressing events at home, in school and even online have the potential to overwhelm teens who might not have mature and effective coping abilities.

While not every teen who is showing signs of emotional distress will think about killing themselves, it is important to know the warning signs so that it doesn’t reach that point.

What are the important warning signs?
According to the American Psychological Association, warning signs for suicide include:

  • Talking about dying — any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping, shooting oneself, or other types of self-harm
  • Recent loss — through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of interest in friends, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed
  • Change in personality — sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, indecisive, apathetic
  • Change in behavior — can’t concentrate on school, work, routine tasks
  • Change in sleep patterns — insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares
  • Change in eating habits — loss of appetite and weight, or overeating
  • Fear of losing control — acting erratically, harming self or others
  • Low self-esteem — feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me”
  • No hope for the future — believing things will never get better; that nothing will ever change

It is possible that a teen may not clearly show these warning signs at home. While it is important to closely pay attention to your teen’s patterns of behavior and feelings, you may not always be aware of what is happening for your child when they are in class, at work or online. Establishing and maintaining strong relationships with other important people in your teen’s life could be a great way to stay connected. Having open communication with your child’s coaches, their teachers and friends could provide you with greater insight if your child does begin to exhibit warning signs that concern you.

What can parents do?
Feeling connected and supported by family and community members can help reduce thoughts of suicide for teens. This means that parents can have a life-saving impact. But how are parents supposed to react in situations like this? What should a parent say when their child is contemplating suicide? The Mayo Clinic released a short, but powerful video on teen suicide from the perspective of teens that provides parents with critical information.

Here is what the teens themselves had to say:

This poignant video emphasizes helpful strategies parents can use if they think their child is suicidal. We’ve further elaborated on these tips below:

Ask honestly
Ask your child, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” While this question seems to be extreme, it is important to ask. It will not further drive your child to take their own life. Many individuals contemplating suicide are looking for help, not hiding from it.

React supportively
If your child tells you that he/she is suicidal, it is very important to react in a way that is supportive, understanding and caring. Although it may be scary and shocking to hear, your child needs to know that you are thankful they came to you for help. Try using some of these phrases in a moment like this: “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad,” “How can I help?,” “We will get through this together,” or “Let’s keep you safe.”

Make small commitments
In this situation, it is important that you and your teen take steps to ensure their safety. But what can you do at that moment? Try making small scale commitments with your teen like “do you feel like you can keep yourself safe for 2 hours while we find someone that can help you?” This also may depend on how confident your teen feels that they won’t hurt themselves or if you feel that immediate action needs to be taken. In this case, find someone you both trust to sit with them while you seek out more immediate help.

Remove dangerous items
Locate and remove any items from the house your child could use to hurt themselves, including weapons, pills, etc. It is also possible that they may have acquired and stored these items without your knowledge. To get a better idea of the situation, ask your teen if they have thought about how they would take their own life, and if they have any of the items in their possession.

Remain open with your teen
Work with your teen to identify next steps they are comfortable with that will allow them to feel they have control over their health. Here are some important resources to keep in mind if both you and your teen find yourself in this position.

Taking action
If you are concerned about the immediate safety of your child, or anyone who is displaying suicidal behavior, call 911. There are several other resources available for individuals in crisis. We have listed a few here:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is an important resource to be aware of. The lifeline is operated by trained professionals and is available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. You can recommend your teen call, you can make the call yourself, or you can make the call with your teen. Many hotlines receive calls from concerned parents who aren’t sure what to do next. They are there to support you.
  • Crisis Text Line is another free, 24/7 support for people in crisis. All you have to do is text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis. A live, trained crisis counselor receives the text and responds quickly. They also have a Facebook messaging option. This resource might be good for teens who are not ready to speak to a stranger.
  • The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24. They have a free 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention phone service at 1-866-488-7386. They provide online messaging and texting services during certain hours (find more on their website linked above).

Discussing these types of resources may also be an important step to take with your teen even if they aren’t suicidal. The more comfortable they feel taking action in situations of crisis, the better prepared they may feel if they find themselves in this position in the future.

Finding mental health services
If you are concerned by your teen’s recent behavior, it may be a good idea to have them complete a mental health evaluation. But where do you start? What if your teen does not want to receive treatment? Seeing a therapist or talking with a medical professional can be intimidating for anyone, including teens.

It is important to give them a voice in the decision. Encourage them to look at the options with you. Maybe your teen wants to attend art therapy or sit-in with a support group at school. Remind them that it is very common to try a few different options before finding a situation they feel comfortable with. Allow them to feel empowered by the decision.

Identifying these options may be the next step. Navigating mental health services can be an extremely confusing process, but don’t let that deter you. Here are a few resources to help with this process:

While suicide is a leading health concern across the globe, it is preventable. Remember, you do not need to deal with this on your own. Seek out friends and family that can support both you and your teen. Connect with professional mental health services who can provide the guidance, resources and services to help your child begin to heal. Additionally, all the information listed above may also provide your teen with concrete steps if they learn that a friend or sibling might be in a similar situation. We encourage you to openly discuss this article with your teen so that they may feel empowered and supported. The more we know about how to support those in our lives struggling with mental health issues, the more we can take steps to provide them with care.


Article Written by Allie Barringer

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Allie is a website administrator for Parenthetical and a graduate student in Human Development and Family Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before going back to school full-time, Allie worked to promote healthy lifestyle choices among teenagers in Chicago, including alternatives to violence. She is currently studying ways to promote healthy youth development through strengths-based strategies. In her spare time, Allie enjoys live music, traveling with friends and spending time with her rescue dog.