Parenting Teenagers: How to Talk to Your Teen About a Suicide

Child Study Center’s Community Crisis Response Team

Victoria Libby, PsyD, Adam Brown, PsyD, Timothy Kreider, MD, and Christina Laitner, PhD

    

Suicide is a devastating event with deep and long-lasting repercussions among families and communities. As much as parents would prefer to insulate their children from such tragedies, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young persons aged 10-24 (CDC, 2015).

Following the suicide or a suicide attempt by a friend or classmate of your child, or a publicized suicide event, you may wonder how best to initiate a conversation with your teen about the tragedy.  Below are some recommendations for speaking with your teenager about suicide, in the aftermath of a suicide event and ideally, in advance of a crisis.

Communicate Openly: One of the most important things that you can do as a parent is to build open and trusting communication with your child. During adolescence, teenagers can be less forthcoming about their worries and feelings with their parents as they try to develop independence. You may need to go to extra lengths to initiate discussions about mental health and suicide, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Avoid Speculation: Misinformation and rumors can follow tragedy. When talking with your child, be curious about what your child knows, thinks he knows, or has heard from friends, school, or the media. Your child will likely have some information about what happened, but this information may be incomplete or inaccurate.

It is common for a child or teen to say, “I know all about it” but asking them to tell you what they “know” can be very informative. Speak calmly about the facts using exact language, such as “suicide” and “death” and correct misunderstandings or misinformation if you can.

Some parents worry that talking about suicide or using direct language will upset their child or give them ideas. It is most likely that your child is hearing about it already, and not speaking about it could send the message that you are not open to discussing it with them. Acknowledge that you do not and cannot know everything about the particular situation and resist the urge to speculate. It may be helpful to talk with your child about the complexity of factors that can contribute to death by suicide, including mental health problems.

Provide Emotional Support: When talking with your teenager, try to listen as much as talk. Your child may experience a range of emotions such as confusion, sadness, grief, guilt, anger, or anxiety and worry about him or herself or others.

Be Mindful of Your Emotional Reaction: As parents, we can be shaken by the death by suicide of a child, especially a peer of our children. Naturally, these tragedies inspire anxiety about the emotional well-being of our children, relatives and young persons in our communities.

It is best for you and your child if you express your feelings honestly and in a manner that is appropriate for your child’s age and situation. For example, when speaking with a tween, you may want to briefly share your own emotional reaction and then shift to helping your child label his or her own reaction, “I am really sad that Jonathan committed suicide. It is terrible that some kids feel so sad and helpless. I imagine that you might be feeling pretty sad and confused.”

When speaking with older adolescents, you want to acknowledge the complexity of your own emotional reactions balanced with attending to your teen’s emotional needs.  For example, “I am devastated that Kayla committed suicide. I get so sad and angry when I hear about the death of a young person, it seems so unfair. I bet this is really hard for you too.”

Who to Turn To

When talking with your teen about suicide, one of the most valuable messages you can communicate is that someone, including you, will listen and help no matter how terrible, alone or hopeless a person may feel. Explain that even if an immediate solution is not available, you and your teen, as a team, will work together to come up with a plan. For example, “I want you to know that no matter how difficult or hopeless a situation might seem there are always options. You can always talk with me, and together, we can figure out what those other options are.” You can also help your child identify other people who she can confide in, such as trusted family members, school counselors or staff, mental health or medical professionals, or spiritual advisors.

Emphasize that if your child has thoughts about harming herself, she should come to you or another trusted adult for help. If you are worried or concerned about your child, reach out to a mental health or medical professional to seek consultation and guidance.

It may also be helpful to talk to your teen about what to do if a peer confides about wanting to hurt themselves, or what to do if your teen is worried about someone he knows. Some adolescents may be more likely to trust a friend than a parent. Let your child know that you are here to listen and that you will figure out what steps need to be taken to ensure that everyone is safe. The message to your child is they do not need to bear the burden of worrying alone.

Getting Help

  • Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you are concerned that your child may be at immediate risk.
  • In New York, call 1-800-LIFE-NET to get advice and referrals.
  • Nationally, call 1-800-273-TALK for a lifeline or local referrals or text START to 741-741, a Crisis Text Line for referrals and crisis survival strategies.
  • Restrict access to firearms, medications, and other lethal means if you have any concern about suicidal thoughts.

Additional Resources

NYU Langone | Stress, Trauma and Resilience Treatment Service

National Child Traumatic Stress Network | Resources for Parents and Caregivers

The Trevor Project | Resources and lifeline for LGBTQ Youth

 Reference

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/youth_suicide.html