If you’re worried that your teen might be thinking about suicide, or you’ve noticed some warning signs in their behaviour, it’s important to have a conversation with them. There are recommended ways to make sure the conversation is effective and supportive. While these conversations can be difficult and confronting, there is a lot you can do to help support your teen.
Conversations Matter is a helpful resource developed by mental health professionals and researchers in NSW to support parents and carers to have open conversations with their children about suicide and mental health. This approach may help you to have a conversation with your child that will allow them to get the help and support they need.
The Conversations Matter framework suggests the following steps:
Act on observations
There are a number of risk factors and warning signs that might indicate your teen is thinking about suicide. These include:
- previous suicide attempts
- talking or writing about suicide or death, even jokingly
- seeking access to something lethal
- being moody, withdrawn or sad
- saying goodbye or giving away possessions
- losing interest in things they previously enjoyed
- taking less care of their appearance
- anxiety or agitation, including difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- engaging in self-destructive or risky behaviour
- increased use of alcohol or drugs
- withdrawal from people they are normally close to.
You probably know your teenager well, so it may be a general sense that 'something isn’t quite right' – for example, your child might be behaving or talking differently.
Manage your thoughts and fears
As a parent, it’s natural to find the issue very confronting and it can be difficult to start the conversation. However, it’s better to ask and be mistaken, than to say nothing. There is no evidence that asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is detrimental or can ‘put ideas in their head’. This is a difficult topic for a teenager to talk about, and knowing that their parent or carer can handle a discussion about it, by bringing it up, can be a big relief. Having someone to talk to may reassure them that they are being heard and understood, and provides an opportunity to get more information.
Talking about the situation with someone you trust is also a good idea, whether it’s a friend or family member or a mental health professional.
Before having the conversation with your teen, make sure you’re in the right headspace and are feeling okay yourself, rather than when you’re stressed or busy.
Prepare for the conversation
While conversations are sometimes unexpected, some advance preparation can help you feel more comfortable. Here are things you can do to prepare.
- Plan to have the conversation somewhere private where you’re unlikely to be interrupted.
- Have the conversation in person, if possible, but you could also have it over the phone or by email. It’s a good idea to find out where they are and if anyone is with them, in case you get worried about their safety.
- If your teen doesn’t want to have the conversation with you, find out if they’d be willing to talk with somebody else, and if so who. You can also provide them with a list of services they can contact.
- Try to stay calm. This kind of conversation can become very emotional. Watch this video to see how other parents stay calm and how they handle it if things get too much.
Start the conversation
It’s important to be authentic and honest during the conversation. Acknowledge that you’re worried and say why you’re concerned. It could look something like: ‘I’ve noticed some differences in you lately and I’m wondering how you’re going.’ It’s helpful if you can be specific about the things you’ve noticed – for example, being withdrawn/sad or increased use of drugs or alcohol.
Listen without judgement
Let your teen speak uninterrupted. Take them seriously and acknowledge their feelings, regardless of what they disclose. Don’t try to minimise their problems by saying things like: ‘It doesn’t sound too bad’ or ‘Try not to worry about it.’ Instead, say things like: ‘It sounds like you are feeling really low’ or ‘I can see this is worrying for you.’ Lots of feelings might come up for you in this exchange: an urge to fix things or make them better, or to talk them out of their feelings, or you may feel defensive about your role as a parent. Do your best to set these things aside so that you can listen to what your teen is experiencing.
Get your teen talking
Try to listen to what your teen is saying, rather than trying to give them advice or ‘fix’ the problem. Use open-ended questions, such as ‘How long have you been struggling with this?’, rather than closed questions like ‘Has this been going on for long?’, which invite ‘yes/no’ answers. This helps to get a better understanding of their situation, thoughts and feelings. If you’re talking on the phone or via message, you can still put them at ease by responding in breaks to show you’re listening and encouraging them to keep opening up.
Ask your teen directly about suicide
To find out if your teen is suicidal, it’s usually best to ask them directly whether they are thinking about taking their own life. In a non-judgemental way, ask: ‘Are you having thoughts of suicide?’ or ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ Let them know that many people think about suicide. Try to offer hope and suggest that people can find ways to get through difficult times. Again, it’s important here not to jump into ‘fix’ mode.
Ask about their plans
If your teen tells you they have thoughts ofsuicide, it’s important to find out if they are in immediate danger. Ask gently if they’ve made any specific plans about how or when. People are usually at higher risk of suicide if they have a specific plan. You could ask questions such as: ‘Have you thought about how you would kill yourself?’, ‘Have you thought about when you would kill yourself?’ and ‘Have you taken any steps to get the things you would need to carry out your plan?’
Keep your child safe
Stay with your teen if they tell you they are having suicidal thoughts and have an urge to act on those thoughts. If they have a safety plan developed with a mental health professional, review with your child those strategies for keeping them safe. If you think there is an immediate risk of harm to your child, contact emergency services. When talking to someone who is having suicidal thoughts, remember that suicide shouldn’t be kept a secret. Your number one priority is to keep your teen safe, which may mean breaking confidentiality if you need to get someone else involved.
With your teen’s help, identify other people who might be able to help them. This may be a professional or someone who has helped them in the past (such as a family member, trusted friend, elder, clergy, teacher, etc.). Let your teen know about the options that are available to them. They can make an appointment with their doctor, talk to a counsellor or other health professional, or access a confidential telephone or online counselling service. You may need to support them to make the first appointment or contact a service on their behalf.
Look after yourself
Supporting your child through a crisis can be difficult and emotionally draining. Be an example for them by openly seeking social or professional support for yourself if you’re becoming stressed by the situation with your child. Our one-on-one support service provides free personalised professional support to help you support your teen through a tough time.