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Ask A Therapist: What Should I Do If My Teen Is Having Suicidal Thoughts?

Embark Behavioral Health
October 29, 2021

I just found out my teen has been having suicidal thoughts. Is this normal? When is it serious? How should I handle it, and what should I think?  

If you’re asking yourself these questions about teen suicide warning signs, Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT and Division President at Embark Behavioral Health, has some answers about what to look for, how to talk about it with your child, and what seeking help looks like. To start, he advises: 

“Any conversation about this should be taken seriously. I think sometimes parents worry that their children are blowing it out of proportion, or some parents, unfortunately, maybe have an experience where a child is repeatedly saying this, and they’re not sure if it’s for attention.” 

To simplify things, if your child is making it known that they’re having suicidal thoughts, he says that it’s definitely because they need serious attention. If they’re talking about suicide, something is wrong and you’ll likely need to get them help. 

In taking threats and statements seriously, Tibbitts offers his recommendations on handling teen suicidal ideation

“If they’re actively exhibiting suicidal tendencies repeatedly, or they’ve come to you and they say, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ then you surround them with love and concern and professionals.” 

The actions you take could vary. He explains that some families may feel the need to call 9-1-1, while some will take their teen to the emergency room, and others may seek the help of mental health professionals.  

“Don’t bug yourself with trying to figure out how serious or when, just immediately read the behavioral cues of the situation, and don’t overthink things. Err on the side of reaching out for as much help as you feel you need in the moment,” advises Tibbitts. From there, take the best course of immediate action that you see fit. 

Teen Suicide Warning Signs 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people between the ages of 15 and 19, making it imperative that the warning signs are understood.

Signs of suicidal ideation can include sleep patterns shifting, eating patterns altering, friend changes, schedule disruptions, losses of interest in things they’ve always been interested in, or increased interest in things that seem to be darker or less healthy.  

Other suicidal behavior signs can include: 

  • Mood swings 
  • Feelings of hopelessness 
  • Increases in substance use 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Isolating oneself 
  • Making despairing statements like ‘I have no reason to live’ 

These are all signs that your teen may need mental health treatment, and watching for the warning signs of suicide can help with suicide prevention.

If you believe your teen or young adult is in crisis, immediately call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

It can be hard to know exactly when to seek help from a mental health professional, but it is important to address suicidal ideation as quickly as you can. Immediate treatment should be sought for young people who have made a suicide attempt or developed a suicide plan. If they’re not in crisis, help starts with talking. 

How to Talk About It with Your Child 

If this has been a long-term problem, Tibbitts says you may need or want professional help in talking to your teen about thoughts of suicide. If you feel like they’re not at present risk of suicide or self-harm, or that you have a strong relationship with your child, you can broach these conversations.

If you’re going to breakfast once a week, or getting up and exercising together every day, or having family dinner on certain days, or playing a video game together regularly, or reading books together, or doing whatever you do normally, you’ll create the space for that talk. Tibbitts says:  

“There are things that [you] can do that seem innocuous or benign, but they really are conduits into a conversation.” 

In spending time with your child, you’ll be able to see their reactions and behaviors and get a sense of how they might be feeling. “That’s a gift to knowing how they’re really doing,” says Tibbitts. He adds: “If we’re trying to have a family dinner and that child is not eating or pushing their food around the plate, or blows up and leaves, that’s a gift, an insight into what’s going on.” For example, this may indicate that something is bothering your child, and it could be helpful to have a conversation. 

Routines are critical when raising adolescents, as parents can learn things from those regular activities and it won’t feel as much like an intervention is needed, because you’ll be able to see the warning signs early. We understand that this is a difficult topic to broach. 

What you can do is get creative about using what you’ve already got going on, and work your way towards this sensitive and challenging topic.  

“If you’re beyond that, if you’re to the point where you just don’t know anymore, then [seek the help of] a professional,” says Tibbitts. Just like Embark, many resources can come into your home, can talk over the phone, or can conduct sessions virtually. “Whatever you need, we can do that,” he adds. 

How to Stay Calm 

It’s understandable if you react strongly to your teen speaking about committing suicide. You may feel scared and worried, or you may feel upset and overwhelmed. It’s not easy in the moment, but it’s important to control those emotions so you can offer your teen the stability and support they need.  
 
The best way to do that is to slow things down — maybe it’s taking a deep breath or following Tibbitts’ suggestion of imagining how you would want someone to react to you in that situation. Then, he says, it’s all about listening and expressing love and concern. He sums up his recommended approach:  

“We’re going to be more human with each other. We’re going to be really attentive and try to attune ourselves to the other person. It’s not about you in that moment. It’s about them, and what do they need?” 

But, part of being human is having strong feelings, sometimes making mistakes, and not always having all the answers. Tibbitts reminds parents:  

“You can’t do it perfectly every time. As long as you can say you’re sorry, as long as you stay there, as long as you stay connected, [and] as long as you keep trying, you’re not failing.” 

Seeking Help for Teens with Suicidal Thoughts  

If your teen is not in immediate danger, your initial go-to resources are going to be people who are already close to your child and care about their well-being. It could be a pastor, a coach, a favorite teacher, school counselor, a neighbor, a family member, or another trusted adult or loved one. Reach out to those people to get their help in addressing the mental health issues and creating a support network. 
 
After that, your next step is a therapist, a counselor, or a professional life coach. Following that, you may seek the help of a psychiatrist or a family doctor. There are also long-term resources for cases that require it.  

This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.