Teens and suicide: What parents should know
Should parents be concerned about teen suicide?
Suicide is in the news and in popular entertainment now more than ever, especially in regard to teens. You can play a role in building up your child’s mental health simply by becoming aware of the risk factors and warning signs that can lead to suicide, making yourself available to your child, knowing how to practice having a caring conversation, and being aware that help is always available.
There were approximately 100,000 teen (15-19 year-olds) suicide deaths over the 40 year period between 1975 through 2015, the most recent year covered by the study.
Boys take their lives at 3-4 times the rate of girls. The suicide rate for teen boys saw a rise that peaked in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, then lowered in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s. This may be attributed to pediatricians increasingly taking on the role of treating depression. However, the rate has unfortunately been rising again since 2006.
The suicide rate for teen girls had a similar but less dramatic pattern. There has been an increase for girls over the last 10-12 years.
It’s worth noting there are fluctuations in suicide rates of all age groups over time. Youth rates remain significantly lower compared to every older age group.
Mental health and heading back to school
What Parents Can Do: Promoting Mental Wellness in our Children
By Gene Beresin, M.D., M.A.
What can I do to protect my teen or tween from suicide risk?
As a parent, you can teach and model healthy habits for mental health just as you would with physical health. Taking care of your own mental health, talking about it openly, and seeking therapy when warranted is one way to model healthy practices.
If your child sees you approaching your own challenges and learning for your own mistakes in an open way, they will understand that it’s okay to struggle and to learn from mistakes. They may develop flexibility and compassion for their own missteps — possibly even empathy for others, seeing how you navigate challenging times. They will also understand that life is messy and challenging for everyone at different times.
Check in with your child regularly, beyond just day-to-day tasks such as homework. You can learn how to invite deeper conversations through further guidance listed on this page.
If your child has a history of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-harm or substance use, you should monitor them more closely, and consider involving a professional, either at key times, or for the longer term for more chronic conditions.
How can I tell if my child is behaving like a normal teenager – i.e. moody, etc. – or if there might be something wrong?
When children hit puberty, there are changes in their body and brain that can and do lead to behavioral changes. But there is a normal range which can manifest as moodiness, irritability, and pushing you away. This is a natural part of adolescent development. What should be concerning is if you notice indications of hopelessness or worthlessness, a withdrawal from friends and activities, or suicidal thinking or behavior. These are not typical manifestations for teenage angst.
You know your child. You know their usual patterns, their common reactions to frustration and challenges, and what their good days and bad days look like. Trust your instincts if their behavior goes beyond these usual patterns of behavior. It could be just the tip of the iceberg of possible changes in their physical or mental health. It’s worth engaging them in conversation to get a fuller understanding of what they are experiencing so you can provide support, and get a better sense of how severe it is.
If your teen or tween’s sleep, energy, appetite, motivation, substance use, and frustration aren’t bouncing back to normal after a few days, have them see their pediatrician or a mental health practitioner.
How can I talk to my teen about mental health and suicide?
Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your child about mental health and suicide. Ask your child how they’re doing, what’s happening in their world these days, and what their concerns are. It can start simply by asking, “Are you okay?”
Listen intently and without judgment. Ask open-ended questions, i.e. those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Resist the urge to offer quick fixes or solutions to their challenges, which tends to shut down further dialog. Validate and support their feelings.
Follow their cues, and say things like, “Tell me more about that. I’d love to understand more about what that’s like for you. When he said that/did that to you, how did that make you feel?”
Should I use the same approach for different age groups, i.e. tweens (ages 8 to 12) or teens (13 to 17)?
The approach is very similar for tweens and teens, but with changes in language based on their level of sophistication and self-awareness. Use language that makes sense to your child, given their age, development, and what you know of how they think about things.
For a young child, you can ask about physical symptoms like stomach aches, and changes in feelings like getting upset or angry more lately. If it seems to you that they feel hopeless, trapped or overwhelmed – then ask if they ever think about hurting themselves or ending their life.
For older children, or kids who have demonstrated they are aware of their own thoughts and feelings, ask about their perceptions, as well as other symptoms like sleep problems, mood changes, and feelings of hopelessness, or of feeling trapped or overwhelmed.
What if they don’t want to talk?
If your child isn’t ready to talk, leave the invitation open for later by saying, “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here to listen and support you.” You could add “I won’t judge, and I’ll never stop supporting you, no matter what challenges you face.”
The likelihood is that your child will open up when you least expect it, sitting side-by-side rather than face-to-face, in the car or engaged in some other activity together.
When your teen starts to open up, be careful not to fall into the trap of jumping in with a solution or by saying, “You should…” or “Why didn’t you…”
What if I’m concerned my child is thinking about suicide?
If your child is talking about any level of distress, do not hesitate to ask them whether they’re feeling changes in their mood or level of stress, or having suicidal thoughts. Asking your child directly about suicide will not increase their risk, or plant the idea. It will create an opportunity to offer support, and let them know you care enough to have the conversation.
You can say, “It sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot lately. Does it ever get so tough that you think about ending your life?”
If your child gives any indication they have been thinking about suicide (unless they are in the act of self-harming) take them seriously. Continue to listen and engage in a caring, concerned, supportive manner. You can say things like, “Can you say more about that? I’m so sorry you’ve been feeling this way. I want to understand more about your perspective. I’m here for you no matter what. There is no problem too big that we as a family can’t get through. I’m going to keep supporting you and will also make sure you get the help you need to feel yourself again.”
Talk with your child about how to seek help. If you fear they may be at risk, get professional help right away.
Let them know you’ll be there for them no matter what, that your love is unconditional, and that you’ll help them get the support they need to get through this challenging time.
In a crisis situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘TALK’ to 741741 to speak or text with a trained counselor who can provide guidance on the most appropriate next steps and resources. Calling 911 is best for situations when self-harm is occurring or is about to occur.
For help finding a Mental Health Professional, consult with your child’s pediatrician, call your insurance, or use this treatment finder.
What if my child knows someone who has taken their life? How do talk with them?
It is important as a parent to be there for your child if a friend or a classmate has died by suicide. You can find specific guidance in AFSP’s Children, Teens, and Suicide Loss booklet, written in partnership with the Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children & Families.
The booklet can be viewed online here.