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How to Help My Suicidal Teen: A Guide for Concerned Parents

 

Suicide can be a frightening word. When you’re concerned your teen may be having suicidal thoughts, it can become particularly frightening. You want to help your teen, but you may be unsure where to start, or how to help. You don’t want them to push you away, and you may be concerned that talking about it may encourage them to do something impulsive.

We understand your concern. Working with teens with self harm and suicidal thoughts is part of what we do at Suffolk DBT, and we want to make sure you know that you’re not alone in this. There are so many ways you can help your teen, whether you’re concerned about their suicidal thoughts, you want to help them cope when they’ve lost a friend or loved one to suicide, or you want to create a plan and open up the conversation around suicide before it becomes a concern. 

The best way forward is to make a plan for your teen and your family. In a time where young people are facing both personal and broader social pressures that are hard to cope with, teen suicide attempts and completions are rising, and there is no better time than now to start the conversation.

Immediate help for suicidal teens

If your teen is experiencing a mental health emergency, calling 911 is an important step in preventing their completion of a suicide attempt. Another option is calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. Getting immediate help is always worthwhile, and never an overreaction. Learn more here about seeking emergency psychiatric care for your teen.

If your current situation is less acute, read on to understand how you can help your teen, and develop a plan.

Signs of suicidal thoughts in teens

Sometimes teens state their suicidal thoughts outright, but there can be more subtle signs that can show you they’re struggling, and that they’re having a hard time seeing the good things in life that make it worth living. Your teen may have

  • Feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, guilt, or worthlessness
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Anger, mood swings, or excessive crying
  • Silence and avoiding eye contact
  • Using substances or risky behavior to cope
  • Talking or writing about having no reason to live, or mentioning killing themselves
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Avoidance of activities they once enjoyed
  • Negative self-talk that is persistent
  • Sudden changes in friends, behavior patterns, or personality
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Running away from home
  • Stress from friend groups or boyfriend/girlfriend relationships
  • Stress from bullying

One of the most important things you can do for your teen is take them seriously. When they express their feelings, even in roundabout ways like “What’s the point?” or “Who cares, I don’t matter?” they’re telling you they are hurting, and they need help. Help can happen on two fronts, and it’s worth making use of both for your teen.

The first front is finding professional medical help for their mental health; don’t let things grow to crisis proportions, you won’t be a bother to a therapist if you want to have your teen evaluated, even if it turns out they were not contemplating suicide. Therapy can do nothing but help, regardless.

The second front is a supportive home environment. Reducing life pressures on your teen, and being flexible and non-judgemental about their willingness to work with a therapist or doctor, as well as with their general demeanor and thoughts, can go a long way toward supporting your teen in this tough time.

 

 

How to talk to your teen about suicide

It can be tough to talk to your teen about suicide. You may be uncomfortable with the subject, or nervous about how the conversation will go. But it is critical, as a parent, to push through that discomfort and worry to open up to your teen. 

Where to start when talking to your teen about suicide?

Starting a conversation about suicide doesn’t need to be elaborate. You can lower the pressure by starting the conversation while doing something mundane around the house, like cleaning together or working on separate projects in the same room. You can let your teen know you’ve noticed some changes, and want to know more. You can ask them directly, saying you wonder if suicide is on their mind, and can they talk to you about it? When you approach your teen with curiosity, an open mind, and with a low-pressure feel to your talk, you’re doing it right. 

When you’re deciding how to talk about suicide with your teen, try to let them guide the conversation. Ask them about how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they’ve been experiencing. They may want to talk about life pressures or other topics that you might not think are on-topic, but any opening up about feelings and experiences is worth listening to. 

Expressing that you want to know, instead of expressing your own fears, can be a low-pressure, non-judgemental way to help your teen open up. Let your teen know you love them, and that they matter to you. Show them, as well as telling them, by treating their needs as a priority. You may need to bring up the subject of suicide and discuss it a few times to really start a conversation with your teen, so try not to get frustrated if they push you away at first.

Validation and compassion are important

Offering your teen validation includes some specific options that can help you be a better listener, and help your teen trust you. Consider trying some, or all, of the following when talking to your teen about suicide. 

  • Be present and attentive. Put down your phone, look at your teen, and listen.
  • Reflect back what your teen tells you, so they know you have understood them, using phrases like, “It sounds like you’re telling me…”
  • Try to read between the lines, and ask your teen, are they feeling sad, overwhelmed, or anxious, based on what they tell you? Don’t assume, just use this to try to understand.
  • Validate what your teen tells you. Their experiences and feelings are real, and represent their perspective, even if you disagree or see it differently. 
  • Recognize your teen when their feelings are in line with what’s happening. Some things are sad, or frustrating, and being heard can help your teen.
  • Talk to your teen as a person, not just a kid, offering them autonomy and partnering with them in a collaborative effort to work towards solutions. 
  • Avoid shame, blame, and guilt, in your conversations with your teen, and in your own mindset. This is a health crisis, they happen to everyone, and you’re working on getting help. There’s no shame in having health troubles, and there’s no shame in seeking help. Quite the contrary, it takes a great deal of strength.

 

How to get help for suicidal teens

Emergency care for a suicidal teen

When seeking emergency care for your teen, calling 911 or going to the emergency room are often the starting point. It can feel intimidating to begin this process, but when your teen’s life and wellbeing are at stake, it’s not worth delaying getting help.

At the emergency room, your child will be evaluated by the nurse and triaged; you’ll likely be brought to a room, and some medical tests run to rule out physical problems. You and your teen will meet with a psychiatrist, and your teen may be evaluated to understand what’s going on, and what treatment will be most effective. You and your teen will be part of the process, so you can understand what’s happening every step of the way.

The medical staff may recommend inpatient psychiatric treatment, or outpatient care, depending on how severe your teen’s experiences are. 

If your teen goes into inpatient care, you’ll be informed of the care plan set up for them, and also be connected to outpatient care including therapy, medication management, and skills training to help your teen. It’s extremely important to remember, when inpatient care is over, your teen will still need mental health care and support. Inpatient care is for stabilizing your teen, outpatient care is for helping sustain that stability and create a foundation of greater mental wellbeing. 

Give your teen and yourself hope as they work on treatment

Provide hopeful, honest support to your teen as they work through mental health treatment for suicidal thoughts. Celebrate when they make progress, and sympathize when they feel discouraged. Try to remain positive, reminding your teen that things won’t be this way forever, and that change is already happening.

As a caregiver to a teen in crisis, you may need help yourself. Support groups, therapy, leaning on friends and family, can all be ways to help strengthen yourself through this tough time. You feel deeply for your teen, and giving yourself extra support can help you sustain your efforts to help them.

Long term mental health care for a teen with suicidal thoughts

Finding the right therapist and doctor for mental health care and medication management is a very important step in helping your teen with suicidal thoughts. Finding a therapist that works with teens, and is diligent about following up with your teen about suicidal thoughts, is a good starting point. In the words of Suffolk DBT founder Jeanette Lorandini:

“People don’t realize how important it is to send their teen to a treatment center that regularly assesses for suicide and seeks to understand the function of the suicidal behavior. In treatment, we’re always asking the question, “What is this pointing to on a deeper level?” There are so many different ways that suicidal behavior becomes a teen’s only way of communicating their inner pain, and without attention to these deeper dynamics, it can be unknowingly reinforced by the family.” 

It helps to have the mindset that mental health support for your teen is a long-term commitment. Much like going to the dentist or doctor regularly for check-ups can help catch problems before they become emergencies, regular work with a therapist can help your teen work through their emotions and experiences in ways that make them more manageable and help your teen cope throughout their life, into adulthood.

 

 

 

DBT is effective for suicide prevention

Dialectical behavior therapy—DBT—is highly effective treatment to prevent suicide. By balancing acceptance and change when it comes to intense negative emotions and thoughts of suicide, DBT helps teens coexist more peacefull with their intense emotions, giving them more control over how they respond and offering them relief from suicidal thoughts. DBT therapists specifically receive training to help clients who have suicidal thoughts.

Consistent monitoring, as well as constructive skills training for emotional management, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance, all combine to provide structure and support that can help prevent suicide attempts, and alleviate suicidal impulses. Healthier coping mechanisms and a more resilient, less reactive mindset are both outcomes of DBT, and it has been shown in multiple studies to effectively reduce urges toward suicide and self harm

Develop a safety plan, before you need it

Safety plans for your teen’s suicidal thoughts can look different, depending on your location and needs. It can be worth writing out your plan somewhere, collecting contact information and phone numbers so you don’t have to search for them in times of stress. 

 Here are some good things to have in a safety plan for your whole family:

  • What should you be looking for in your teen? 
  • Where can you get help, either in an emergency, or when things start to look serious?
  • What do you need to secure in your home?
  • What medical professionals does your teen already see? How can you contact them?
  • What kinds of support does your family need if you have a crisis? Who can help?

DBT and safety plans

Part of DBT framework, particularly around clients who experience suicidal thoughts, is creating a safety plan specifically for your teen. Teens can identify their triggers, keep a list of coping strategies handy, and make sure they know who to talk to when they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Here are some helpful things to have in your plan, for your teen:

  • Healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions
  • Common triggers
  • What your teen should look for, in terms of signs that their mental health is worsening
  • A safety plan for school; who to talk to, what to do? Share the plan with their school.
  • Safe people to go to for help

Secure your home to help your teen

Part of your plan to help your teen can be to secure items in your home that your teen might use against themselves. Securing and locking away sharp objects, shaving razors, kitchen implements, ropes, medications, firearms (storing ammunition separately), household chemicals, and tools/hardware can all help reduce risks for your teen in your home. 

 

 

Suffolk DBT is here to help

Suffolk DBT is committed to preventing teen suicide. Our DBT therapists are trained to spot the warning signs of suicide, and have effective, and practical support to offer. We regularly work with teens with suicidal thoughts, and take our work seriously. Our welcoming therapists work to build trust without judgment, and have the experience your family needs to make sure we help based on your teen’s specific situation and experiences.

Our DBT program—available in Suffolk County, Nassau County, and in Manhattan—includes individual counseling, group counseling with skills work, on-call help for your teen between sessions, and family sessions to support skills knowledge for those closest to your teen. We also provide families with resources and connections to emergency support if needed. If you and your teen are in Manhattan or Long Island and are ready to get help, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Suffolk DBT. We are here, ready to help, whenever you need. 

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