The below article was written by Tina Harrold, MSW, LCSWA, Child and Family Therapist at Crossnore School & Children’s Home.
What do you do when your child looks at you and wishes to be dead or no longer on this earth? How do you handle it when your child seems so isolated and withdrawn that you fear losing them? What if you find out that your child has attempted to end their life by suicide?
Most parents do not know what to do because the topic of suicide is not covered in the parenting manual. It’s probably a topic you have never discussed with your child. But we need to. We have to. In order to help our children navigate their paths, we as parents first to have overcome the stigma of and discomfort with the topic of suicide.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for children ages 10-17 years (CDC, 2014 & 2016). The most common methods for dying by suicide are suffocation and firearms because those are most accessible. These statistics are startling because suicide affects all demographics, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status.
If your child has made comments about wishing to be dead or wishing to go to sleep and not wake up, it is important to have a serious and well-planned conversation to discuss this. It is true that a child may hear the statements “I just want to die” or “I wish I never was born” from a variety of places such as the media, friends, or other adults. However, do not dismiss these statements as attention-seeking or joking because you do not know exactly what your child may intend. It is better to err on the side of caution and safety than miss an opportunity to intervene. Every statement of suicide should be responded to as an independent event and evaluated with the same level of concern, no matter if it’s the first time or the tenth time.
Here are a few tips and examples on how to address the topic of suicide with your child:
Ask. Ask. Ask.
Many parents fear that if they ask their child about having thoughts of suicide, they will inadvertently put those thoughts into their child’s mind and make them more at risk. It is actually the opposite. If your child is suicidal, they have already thought about it. You may be their savior by making it acceptable and safe to discuss their feelings.
Have a preemptive conversation.
If your child has not made actual comments about wanting to die by suicide, you can still address the topic with them. Neutral conversations and statements can be helpful for kids in navigating their thoughts and even help them identify friends who may be at risk. “Sometimes kids get so sad that they think the world would be better without them in it. I want you to know that if you ever feel like this, you can talk to me or someone else you trust because the world is special with you in it.”
Establish the habit of open dialogue.
Have regular conversations with your child about trustworthy adults they can talk to. Regularly discuss your child’s day by asking specific questions – “What is something that made you happy today? What is something that made you sad today?” This allows your child to feel safe and comfortable with talking about feelings and sets the foundation for discussing more difficult topics and situations.
Know the risk factors and take action.
If your child is actively suicidal and may be a harm to him or herself, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911. These behaviors can include:
- Actively cutting, burning, or scratching their body
- Verbalizing a specific plan to harm or die by suicide – “I am going to get a knife and stab myself” or “I am going to shoot myself.”
- Having immediate access to life-threatening measures such as medications or firearms
- Not being able to contract or agree to safety – refusing to seek help, minimizing the issue, or having made an attempt in the past
- Giving away special or personal items to others
- Major shifts in mood and behavior (moving from active suicidal statements or behaviors to calmness and acceptance)
You are not alone. Your child is not alone. There are numerous resources available including suicide hotlines, warm lines, and local agencies that can provide support during or after a crisis.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 (FREE and CONFIDENTIAL 24/7)
- Hope Line 919-231-4525 (FREE and CONFIDENTIAL 24/7, call or text available)
- The Trevor Project (LGBTQ suicide hotline) 1-866-488-7386 (24/7/365)
For more information and resources on suicide prevention, risk factors, and other mental health topics, please visit the following websites.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org)
- Mental Health First Aid (mentalhealthfirstaid.org)
To find out more about the clinical therapy services Crossnore offers or to contact us, visit https://crossnore.org/clinical-services/.