What to Do When Your Child Threatens to Kill Themselves
Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP has over 15 years of experience working in the Canadian healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health, and women's health services.
If your child threatens to harm themselves, never ignore or dismiss them, even if you feel like they are trying to manipulate you or to garner attention.
For parents and caregivers, it can be extremely challenging to navigate these conversations. The most important thing to do is to take their concerns seriously.
Validate their feelings, not get angry, remain calm, avoid blame and accusations, stay involved, and be supportive in your child’s life.
This article provides advice to parents whose children have expressed suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation. Even if your child hasn’t outright threatened to kill themselves, they may still show signs of depression and mental health challenges that shouldn’t be ignored.
Related: 5 Ways Social Media Affects Kids’ Mental Health
These are extremely difficult topics to deal with but it’s essential for parents to know what to do when a child has these thoughts, how to be aware of warning signs or behaviors, and how to talk to them about their suicidal thoughts and overall mental health.
Teen Suicide Statistics
It is estimated that between 1974 and 2015, there were 100,000 deaths by suicide among teens aged 15 to 19 years of age. The suicide rate among teen males is approximately 3 to 4 times higher than the suicide rate among females.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the suicide rate peaked for teenage boys and then declined in the late 1990s and at the start of the 2000s.
It has been suggested that the decrease may be due to an increase in pediatricians and healthcare providers treating depression among teens. However, For teenage girls, the suicide rate has been steadily increasing over the past 10 to 12 years.
According to The Child Trends Teen Suicide Databank Indicator, the percentage of high school students who reported having serious thoughts of taking their own life decreased from 29% to 14%, between 1991 and 2009, respectively. However, the prevalence of suicide among high school students increased to 17% in 2017.
Warning Signs That a Child May Be Suicidal
As your child transitions into adolescence and starts to experience puberty changes in their body and brain, you’ve probably noticed a gradual change in their behavior and attitude.
Most parents will often talk about how their teenager has become more moody, rebellious, irritable, and less likely to want to engage with them during this transition. This is a normal part of adolescent development.
However, there are several signs that can indicate your child’s behavior is not typical teenage behavior. If your child has recently experienced a traumatic life event at school, with a friend, or within the family, they are at higher risk for suicide. So, it’s crucial to be aware of the warning signs so you can intervene and seek professional help for your child.
Some of the risk factors, behaviors, and warning signs of suicide include the following:
- Family history of suicide, depression, or mental illness
- History of suicide attempts
- Physical illness
- Deep feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, grief, shame, and guilt
- Lacking a sense of purpose and/or motivation
- Extreme mood swings
- Withdrawal from friends, family, school work, extracurricular activities
- A significant drop in grades and academic performance
- Lack of interest in activities and events that they used to enjoy
- Expressing thoughts of suicide such as writing, talking, drawing, and posting on social media about self-harm, suicidal ideation, or what happens after death
- Difficulty concentrating
- Giving away possessions
- Substance abuse (drugs or alcohol)
- Intentionally putting themselves in dangerous situations with no concern for their safety
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Acting recklessly and taking unnecessary risks frequently
- A change in their energy levels
- A change in appetite such as eating more or less than usual
- A change in sleeping habits such as sleeping later than usual, trouble waking up or falling asleep
- Uncontrolled anger and violent behavior
It’s important to note that having certain risk factors, some or all, does not necessarily lead to suicide.
You know your child the best and how they respond and react during their good and bad days. If you sense something is off, talk to your child and have an open, safe, and honest conversation. Come from a place of compassion and support. Trust your gut instinct and what you know about your child.
If you notice they aren’t bouncing back to their normal selves after a few days, make an appointment to have your child see their pediatrician or a mental health provider.
What To Do When Your Child Expresses Suicidal Thoughts
When a child expresses suicidal thoughts or threatens to kill themselves, take their concerns seriously. Although you may think your child is trying to get attention, being dramatic, or attempting to manipulate you, it’s important to seek help from a medical professional.
This is not normal behavior. Do not try to deal with it alone or dismiss their suicide threats as teenage angst.
How To Talk To Your Child About Their Suicidal Thoughts and Mental Health
The first thing you can do is talk to them about it, listen to their concerns, and ask questions about how they’ve been feeling. Try to understand their situation and remove judgment.
Talk with them in an empathetic, caring, and compassionate manner. Tell them that you are always there for them and that you love them unconditionally. Offer support, show your concern, and discuss ways to get help.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a way to respond to a child who is thinking about suicide is to say the following:
“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.”
Some tips to help start the conversation include:
- Simply start by asking if they are okay, how they’ve been feeling lately and how they’ve been doing overall. It may be uncomfortable to talk about mental health and suicide but talking about it can help your child to get the support they need.
- Follow their lead and give them the time and space to respond to you. Sit quietly with them and respect the silence. Don’t interrogate them with multiple questions or accuse them of trying to manipulate you.
- Try to find out if there was a significant event that occurred that may have caused them to feel this way. Encourage them to share with you what happened and express that you want to talk about it.
- Validate their feelings and avoid minimizing their mental health issues. Paraphrase what they are saying and listen intently. Show that you’re trying to understand from their point of view. Do not tell them to get over it or that they’re just being sensitive or overreacting.
- Ask open-ended questions so that your child can’t respond with a yes or no; this gives them an opportunity to share with you more thoroughly.
- Avoid telling them what to do, or giving advice or solutions to their problems, especially when they haven’t asked for it. This can come across as dismissive as though you’re shutting down the conversation.
- Show you are concerned for your child and that you care about them. Tell them that you don’t want them to harm themselves.
- Provide reassurance to your child by telling them they are not alone and that you are going to help them through it all.
- Talk to them about options for getting help for their mental health problems and gently suggest that they try
- Tell them you love them no matter what.
If they are not willing to talk to you, ask if there is a trusted adult they would feel more comfortable talking to. For example, suggest that they talk to another loved one or family member, coach, school counselor, pastor, teacher, family doctor, or mental health professional.
Seek Immediate Medical Attention
If you sense your child is in immediate danger or self-harm is already occurring, do not leave them alone.
Remove things in the home that can be used to harm themselves such as medications, weapons, and guns. Seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
Call 911 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room, doctor’s office, or local mental health clinic.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This hotline provides 24/7, free and confidential support from trained counselors and crisis resources for anyone living in the United States who is experiencing emotional or suicidal distress.
Helpful Resourcse for More Information
- afsp.org. Teens and suicide: What parents should know. 2023.
- childtrends.org. Teen Suicide Databank Indicator. 2022.
- health.ny.gov. Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years. 2022.
- 988lifeline.org. 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. 2023.
- healthychildren.org. 12 Things Parents Can Do to Help Prevent Suicide. 2022.
- cdc.gov. Suicide Prevention. 2023.
- Cammarata, Christina. About Teen Suicide. 2023.
- nimh.nih.gov. Suicide Prevention. 2022.
- sprc.org. Suicide Prevention Resource Center. 2023.
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Katharine is the author of three books, has been published in scientific journals, and has co-authored chapters in health research books.