Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 34 and it’s vital that you have conversations with your teen about this very serious issue. Recently, a Netflix original show called 13 Reasons Why brought up the topic of teen suicide. There is some controversy about the show, as it glamorizes suicide in some ways and critics are afraid that it might inspire copycat suicide attempts. On the other hand, it does bring the topic to light and might raise awareness of the issue. If you aren’t sure how to have a conversation with your child about teen suicide, read on to find some tips.
1. Choose a Good Time and Know What You Want to Say
When it comes to approaching difficult topics, such as teen suicide, having a plan is usually a good idea. When your teen is busy or distracted is not the best time to bring up a serious issue like suicide. One place that many teens will open up or at least listen to what is being said is in the car. When your teen is a passenger and you are driving, he or she doesn’t have to look at you and there’s no way they can walk away from the conversation. Another good time to talk about suicide might be after watching a television show about the topic or if it comes up in the news or in your teen’s circle of acquaintances.
Have an idea of what you want to say, but not a framework for the whole conversation. It’s important not to assume that you already know what your teen is thinking. Plan to keep the discussion open-ended; ask your teen for his or her ideas and then go from there. It’s okay to acknowledge from the beginning that it’s a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable. This can set your teen at ease.
2. Listen to What Your Teen Is Saying
If you go into the conversation assuming you know what your teen is going to say, you might be in for a surprise. Don’t only listen to the words coming out of your teenager’s mouth; also focus on his or her body language to see what they’re not saying out loud. Don’t beat around the bush; go ahead and ask direct questions. If your teen says something that you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
Asking your teen if he or she has ever considered suicide might elicit an answer of “yes.” Try not to panic, but tell your child that this concerns you and that you would like to revisit the issue another time and that you would like him or her to talk to a professional about how he or she is feeling.
3. Don’t Overreact — But Don’t Underreact, Either
It can be very difficult not to overreact if your teen indicates that he or she has thought about suicide. Your stress level will likely skyrocket, and if you begin to lose control, it will likely cause your teen to shut down any further discussions of the topic. Take a few deep breaths and stay calm. During your conversation, your teen is not in danger (unless he or she is actually in danger at that moment, which means that you need to call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room).
The next step is to decide what to do. Often, a teen will feel a sense of relief just talking about it. It’s important to remove anything that your teen could use for a suicide attempt from where he or she can get to it. This might mean locking up medications, razors, knives, and, of course, any guns you have in your home. Seek help from a mental health counselor right away.
It’s equally important not to underreact. Any time a teen says he or she is thinking about suicide, you must take it seriously. The stakes are too high to call your teen’s bluff or to wave it away as an attempt to get attention.
4. Know the Warning Signs of Teen Suicide (FACTS)
You should be aware of the warning signs of teen suicide. You can remember them by thinking of the acronym FACTS:
F is for feelings. Is your teenager showing that he or she is feeling strong negative emotions, like self-loathing, worthlessness, hopelessness, strong anger, or excessive anxiety? These feelings could mean that your teen is dealing with severe depression, which is a risk factor for suicide.
A is for actions. Has your teen recently started using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the struggles of life? Are they doing dangerous things (like racing cars on the highway or getting into fights) as though they have little regard for their own life? These could be warning signs of suicidal ideation.
C is for change in personality, appetite, sleeping habits, or school performance. If your teen is going through a drastic change, there could be something going on that might cause him or her to consider suicide.
T is for threats. Any threat of suicide needs to be taken seriously, whether or not you think it is serious. A teen who has gotten to the point of saying things like, “I wish I were dead,” or “Life would be better if I weren’t here,” could be seriously contemplating killing him- or herself.
S is for situations. Has your teen gotten into situations with the law or with school that are outside of what he or she normally does? Getting into major trouble is a red flag for various mental health issues, including suicidal ideation.
Remember, conversations about difficult issues, including teen suicide, should not be limited to one discussion. This is something that you should talk about regularly. The first time discussing a sensitive issue is usually the hardest; after that, it might be easier to incorporate your thoughts into everyday conversations about various issues. If you need help deciding how to broach the topic or you aren’t sure what to do with the information you’ve gotten from your teen, don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or talk to your teen’s physician or mental health care provider.