How Families Can Support Adolescent’s Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24 in the United States. Nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide and 9% have made an attempt. These numbers are concerning and yet there is hope. Strong social and family connections have been identified as a protective factor against teen suicide.
The first step in supporting your adolescent who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is to recognize their symptoms.
Studies show that 90% of teens who died by suicide were struggling with mental health issues, but it’s important to keep in mind that teens who haven’t been formally diagnosed may still be at risk. If you notice changes in your adolescent’s mood, sleep patterns, appetite, and social activities, remain calm, alert, and start the conversation, “You seem sad. I’m open to talking about this because I love you and I care about what happens to you.”
The second step in supporting your adolescent who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is to validate their pain and struggle.
Knowing how to respond to your adolescent can be challenging and our natural instinct as humans is to want to protect our children from additional pain and suffering. While the intention is always loving, the ways in which we try to protect can often be perceived by an adolescent as dismissive and invalidating. For example, our tendency may be to respond with statements such as “You don’t mean that. You have a great life and lots of friends.” Or “That’s ridiculous. We don’t talk that way in this house.” While statements such as these may be from a place of fear or protection, they can result in adolescents feeling misunderstood or invalidated.
Being able to create space for your adolescent to talk about all their feelings and have those feelings validated in return, is one of the most powerful ways families can support suicidal adolescents. Examples of supportive responses include “It sounds like you are experiencing tremendous emotional pain right now and are having a hard time seeing the way out.” Or “It makes sense that would be feeling this way because things have been really hard for you lately and because life feels really heavy and because you hurt on the inside. I’m here with you and for you and I’m not going anywhere. I am committed to finding you the help you need to work through this. I love you so much.”
The third step in supporting your adolescent who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is to create safety in the home (when warranted). If your adolescent has been assessed as at risk for suicide and they are able to be treated outside of the hospital, you can also provide support by reducing access to means within the home. Remove or securely lock potentially lethal objects from/in the home. This includes, but is not limited to, firearms, knives, razors, other weapons, alcohol, illicit and/or prescription drugs, poisonous products, ropes, belts, or plastic bags.
The fourth step in supporting your adolescent who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is to know when to ask for more help. If your adolescent is self-harming, cannot commit to safety or if you sense they are at risk of suicide, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room for support. If your adolescent is at risk, but you don’t sense an immediate crisis, consider reaching out to an already established mental health provider or contacting your pediatrician or local mental health providers to schedule a mental health evaluation. If you are unsure about what to do, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and resources.
Above all else, have hope and seek support for your adolescent and for you! Well supported families are best able to provide support and care for suicidal adolescents.
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