As a parent, a teenager expressing suicidal thoughts is one of the most scary things imaginable. It is also very often overlooked or discounted. A lot of teens say things like that for attention, but a lot of them are serious too. Assuming they are seeking attention is too risky when a teen threatens suicide. It is best to always take these threats seriously. Aside from that, if they are simply looking for attention, it’s clear they need it. It isn’t always bad for a teen to get more attention. Once things calm down you can start talking with them about better ways to ask for the attention they need.
If your teen expresses feeling suicidal, you need to immediately ask them a few questions. You need to ask them:
1. How long have you felt like this?
2. Can you identify any particular reason or has something bad happened lately?
3. Do you have a plan for how you’d commit suicide?
4. Do you intend to go through with it?
5. Have you ever tried it before?
With question 4, if the answer is yes then you need to take immediate action. I find parents struggle a lot with this because of the action required. You need to stop whatever you are doing and drive your teen straight to the emergency room. This is considered an emergent issue. You will feel strange about doing so because you don’t see your teen bleeding, vomiting, etc, and it seems like people should appear physically ill to go to the emergency room. However, the staff at the ER will not think it is odd that you’ve brought your teen. In fact, they will see it as appropriate. Don’t hem and haw if your child intends to harm him or herself. Sometimes even the intervention of a few days in a hospital can really change their outlook.
If the answers to 2, 3 and/OR 5 are a yes, but 4 is a no, you need to call for a counseling appointment that very day. Also ask your teen daily whether they intend to commit suicide so you know whether or not to go to the ER. Help your teenager have a plan in case their mood deteriorates further. Sit down with your teen and work with them to write out a list of names and phone numbers to call when they are feeling particularly awful. Tell them if it becomes serious, they are to call 9-1-1.
On your part, make sure your teenager does not have access to lethal items. Remember how when your child was two you were very careful to keep poisons locked up and knives out of reach? It’s a lot like that. If you have a gun, keep it locked in the safe and change the code just in case your teenager knows the code. Go through the medicine cabinets and remove pills that are dangerous if taken in great quantities. Remove your knives and other sharp objects from the home. I know this is a major hassle, but it is an important precaution. Think of other potentially dangerous objects and keep them from your teen too. Essentially, you want to make it very inconvenient for your teen to try harming him or herself because it buys time if they are in trouble.
Please take these threats very seriously. It is not the time to react in anger toward your teen. Your anger is likely stemming from fear. It is time to take charge and quickly take action. You can express anger and fear later.
Also, I’d like to again address the teen who does say something like that for attention. If you react in the ways described above, then they tend to learn their lesson. They tend to feel embarrassed for saying something like that when they didn’t mean it. Also, if they will go to that extreme to get attention, then they might really need some attention. Giving it to them is not a bad thing.
I know this is a really tough issue to deal with. It’s something you never want to face. It causes a sick, panicky feeling in a parent. You may have never felt so little control over your child’s well-being. Take a deep breath and then purposely walk through the steps you need to take to help your teen be safe.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT