Support your teenager to manage suicidal thoughts

This article discusses suicide. If your teen is in immediate danger or is going to act on suicidal thoughts, call 000 if you live in Australia. A number of crisis support services are also there for you – have a look at our urgent help page.

There may be times when your teen feels like their problems are too big and won’t improve, and that they won’t be able to get through this period in their life. At these times, they may think about suicide. It’s distressing when someone you love loses all hope, but if your teen is unable to find a reason to keep living, it’s essential to help them realise that these thoughts will pass and that support is available to help them get through the tough times.

Depending on the reason for their distress and suicidal thoughts, a combination of different solutions may be most helpful for them.

What you can do to help your teen manage suicidal thoughts

When your teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important that they know who they can talk to. Let them know that they can approach:

  • You, their parent/carer.

  • A suicide crisis service – you can find them on the emergency page.

  • Their school counsellor, who is a registered mental health professional and is as qualified to support your teen as a psychologist is. If your teen is over a certain age, anything they talk about with their school counsellor is strictly confidential, as long as no one is at risk of harm.

  • An online mental health support forum, such as the ReachOut Online Community. This is an anonymous and safe space for young people to write about what’s going on, or to read posts from other young people. Keep in mind that these forums don’t offer immediate help, so if your teen needs to speak to someone urgently, it’s best to contact a helpline.

Encourage your teen to seek help early, when they first start having suicidal thoughts. It might take more than one attempt to find the help that’s right for them, so it’s essential to keep them motivated that they will find the help they need. Whether it’s reminding them that they can come and talk to you at any time, or encouraging them to call a helpline, any step that assists them to seek help is useful.

Try to make an agreement with your teen that they will talk to you or to a helpline like Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), Lifeline (13 11 14) or 13Yarn (13 92 76; to speak with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander crisis supporter) before acting on thoughts of ending their life.

Tips for having a conversation about suicidal thoughts

It’s important to remain calm, but no doubt your concern – and even your fears – for your teen may come through. It’s essential that you listen to what your teen says. Someone thinking about suicide is feeling pain, and so it’s important that they feel heard without being judged. Listening is the most powerful way to prevent suicide, but it requires that you accept and acknowledge your teen’s feelings as they describe them, even if they don’t seem rational to you. Their pain is a strong emotional response and you must accept it as a genuine feeling.

In many cases, having the opportunity to express how they are feeling and knowing they are being listened to will alleviate the pain so that they don’t take immediate action. This is most likely to happen if they feel your support, empathy and love.

It’s fine to be optimistic about getting help, or concerned or impatient. But it’s important not to try to reason your teen out of doing anything, or attempt to cheer them up or to make them feel guilty. The urge to fix everything for your teenager is understandable, but right now they need you to listen more than to talk.

Keeping your teen safe

Stay with your teen if they tell you they are having suicidal thoughts and are feeling the urge to act on them.

If you are concerned that they are at immediate risk, contact emergency services. If you’re unsure about the level of risk, a hotline like the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Lifeline (13 11 14) can talk to you or your teen about what is happening, and help you to identify appropriate next steps.

Helping your teenager to manage ongoing suicidal thoughts

If your teen isn’t at immediate risk but is having ongoing suicidal thoughts, you could help them to make a safety plan. A safety plan can help them to keep themselves safe when they feel they might act on their suicidal thoughts. It might include:

  • making a list of trusted people your teen can contact if they feel like they’re going to act on their suicidal thoughts

  • agreeing that they’ll contact you or another trusted adult before they act on any suicidal thoughts

  • agreeing that they’ll check in with you or another trusted adult regularly. This will depend on how distressed your teen is. They might need a daily morning and evening check-in, or once every two days might be enough. It’s important to discuss with your teen what might work for them

  • agreeing that they will refrain from using any recreational drugs or alcohol while they are feeling suicidal.

Get some more information on creating a suicide safety plan with your teen here.

Helping your teen recover

For some teens, thoughts about suicide are brief, often in response to something upsetting that’s happened. For others, these thoughts can persist; even once their immediate safety is addressed, they may continue to experience a low mood, hopelessness and distress. If this is the case for your teen, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.

There are also things you can do to help support them through this tough time. If you’re there for them, this will help them to see that their suicidal thoughts will pass.

You could help them:

  • to do some of their favourite hobbies or spend time with them in simple ways, such as taking a walk together or doing anything to help them experience some enjoyment or that shows them you’re there for them

  • to set small goals as a way of working their way out of their crisis

  • to find reasons to keep living and things to look forward to.

No parent wants to experience their teen having suicidal thoughts. Remember that no one is to blame if this happens. What’s important now is that your teen knows that you love them and are there to support them, no matter what. With a bit of extra help if you need it, you and your teen can get through this together.

Page last review by ReachOut Parents Clinical Advisory Group on 22/04/2016.

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