How to Help a Child Who Is Suicidal: A Guide for Parents
Updated: Jul 26
When a child is going through an extremely difficult time, it can be challenging to know what to do to best support them. As parents, we want our loved ones to be happy and healthy. However, life events or circumstances may adversely impact our loved ones, and we may feel at a loss as to how to help them. In some instances, listening to them or engaging in a loving conversation may provide the support needed. In other cases, seeking professional help might be required. However, if your son or daughter expresses suicidal thoughts, it is vital to address the issue immediately.
This article will help you understand the warning signs and offer advice on what to do if you suspect your child might be suicidal. It will also provide suggestions on what to say to a teenager or child who is suicidal and connect you to valuable adolescent suicide prevention resources.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.
Know the Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior
There are some warning signs that children show us when they might be at risk of harming themselves. However, it can still be difficult for parents to distinguish between normal ups and downs and actual risk.
Some common warning signs include:
withdrawal from others,
hints about suicidal thoughts such as "I want to go to sleep and never wake up," "I won't be a problem for you for much longer," or "I'm going to kill myself."
doing risky or self-destructive things,
increased drug or alcohol use.
Changing routine, including:
talking about feeling worthless or helpless without a reason to live, eating or sleeping patterns,
sudden changes in mood, including being happy all the time after usually being very sad or angry,
giving away possessions, saying goodbye, or writing a note.
Suicide Prevention Steps You Can Take as a Parent
Take the warning signs seriously. If your child appears to be thinking about suicide, they are probably also displaying warning signs. Listen to what they are saying and watch how they are acting. Never believe that threats of suicide are just adolescent drama- it could be a call for help.
Talk to your child openly and honestly about mental health and suicide. It can be challenging for parents to understand why their child feels suicidal or depressed. Still, it is important for parents not to react with shock or skepticism. In response to your son or daughter expressing suicidal thoughts, you should respond calmly and show them that you care by listening to what they are saying. You may not have the answer or the solution to their problems, but listen and ensure they know it's okay. Reassure them that they can work through whatever is going on and that you will support them with whatever they need to get through this. If they aren't comfortable sharing with you, ask if there's someone else they would rather talk to, like a teacher, school counsellor, a family member, a crisis counsellor, or another mental health professional. If they ever express a specific plan to end their life, it is critical that you call a crisis line or 911 immediately.
Keep checking in on your child's wellbeing. Encourage a healthy lifestyle by helping them eat well and exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Also, discourage isolation by encouraging them to spend time with supportive friends or family members.
Help your child get professional support. If your teen is feeling suicidal, they probably need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist who has experience in diagnosing and treating children. Encourage them by reminding them of how much progress they've made so far and that, even though the process may be difficult, it takes time to feel better.
Focus on the positive. It’s easy when in a negative mood or in a depressed state to focus on all the bad things or all the things going wrong. Helping reframe for them the positives or having the child find these positives will improve their neurocognitive assessment of self and the surroundings. Studies show that positivity and positive thinking, even if they don’t feel genuine, can change the way people perceive the world and themselves.
Lastly, safely store firearms, alcohol, hazardous materials, and medications. Easy access to such things may play into their decision-making processes if they feel like suicide is their only option.
Finding the right resources
Many different programs can offer help and support to suicidal youths. Kids Help Phone and Crisis Services Canada are great resources for parents and their loved ones. They provide a 24/7 suicide prevention helpline, chat line, and text service. It's essential to connect your child with services like these because they may not always be comfortable talking to adults or people they know. Especially if they are in crisis, having this resource available is critical for suicide prevention. Add the telephone numbers for these resources to your loved one’s contacts on their cell phone and your list of contacts – you never know if or when it might be needed.
Creating a Suicide Safety Plan
A suicide safety plan is a series of instructions that specify the steps to take if your child begins experiencing thoughts about harming themselves. They progress through the steps and follow them until they feel safe again.
You can work on this with them, or they can work on it with someone else they trust (a best friend, a close family member, or a doctor or therapist).
The plan should be laid out as follows:
The first step in creating a suicide safety plan is to think about the situations, images, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that might signify or accompany suicidal urges. Make a list to refer back to it when they decide whether to activate their plan. It's also helpful if they familiarize themself with some of the risk factors for suicide because it will be easier for them to recognize these warning signs.
Ways to Calm/Comfort
The next step is to list things/activities that can be soothing or calming. This could be anything; mind-body methods like breathing exercises or meditation, taking a bath, listening to music, exercising, etc. It doesn't matter what, as long as it helps calm them.
Reasons for Living
Next, create a list of reasons for living. Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal when they are feeling suicidal or experiencing depressive thoughts. A list of the reasons for living is helpful. When someone finds themselves in that state, looking at what has been written can help them focus on the positives in their life until those feelings pass. Consider writing about blessings like family and friends, health, pets, or your faith.
Trusted Contact Information
It is important to have the contact information of people they trust when the self-help measure doesn't work. Making a list of names and numbers is better than only having one should the first or second choice is unavailable.
Create a list of all professional resources, including crisis hotlines. Have phone numbers, email addresses, and other pertinent contact information handy. This is also a good place for the contact information of a therapist or psychiatrist.
Ways to Make the Environment Safe
Lastly, creating a space where one can feel safer is vital to the suicide Safety Plan. This could be removing or securing items that someone could hurt themselves with, going to another location until the urges have passed, or getting another person involved. If they feel like hurting themself, go somewhere public where they will be safe until they have had a chance to get support or to process and resolve the self-harming feelings.
At Nōmina, we are parents too and we understand the profound emotions in trying to support a young adult with mental health concerns. We treat not just youth with our Young Adult Program, but the whole support system with our Extensive Family Program.