How to Help Teens With Suicidal Thoughts

Hearing that someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts can be overwhelming, terrifying, and baffling. You may not know how to respond, what to say, or whether you should intervene and get them help.

In some situations, you may feel tempted to disregard the things that they are saying. Perhaps they are prone to dramatic statements, or maybe these statements are coming on the heels of a bad day or breaking up with a girlfriend.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst young people, which means that any mention of suicide or suicidal thoughts from a teen should be taken very seriously.

That said, it can be hard to know what your next steps should be.

Knowing the signs of suicide in teens

Whether the teen in your life is serious about his threats or is speaking out with anger and depression fueling his words, it’s essential to pay attention. Take every threat of suicide seriously. Many suicides can be prevented if only the warning signs are recognized and the right supportive intervention is offered.

Some of the warning signs of suicide include:

  • Drastic changes in both sleeping and eating habits
  • Signs of depression
  • Uncharacteristic behaviors, including anger and lashing out
  • Rebellious or violent behavior that seems to come out of nowhere
  • Withdrawing from both friends and family
  • Dropping grades or skipping school completely
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Showing signs of distress, anxiety, or panicky behavior
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Speaking about or writing about committing suicide, even in an apparent joking manner

No two people are going to experience depression and suicidal thoughts the same way. What your teen experiences and displays can vary greatly between siblings and other teens.

Getting your teen to open up

Life can feel lonely, even for teens who appear to have busy and active social lives. When they’re feeling overwhelmed by life, stress, sad experiences, they may feel like no one else knows what it is that they’re going through. Even a well cared for teen can feel isolated and depressed about their life. They may feel like they have to face their troubles on their own.

It is important that your teen knows that the lines of communication are completely open. Whether you’re a parent, an uncle, a trusted family friend, or a coach to a teen in crisis, you must let them know that conversations with you are going to be a safe and judgment-free experience.

It can take some time to get a withdrawn teen to open up, but it is possible. Spend time with them, perhaps just watching a movie together. Go on walks together. Get into family counseling sessions to help you both learn how to communicate effectively.

If you can get and keep them talking, you can offer the teen in your life the kind of help that they need to get through this challenging cycle. Sometimes all it takes is your teen knowing that he can speak candidly about how he is feeling and what he is thinking. Venting and feeling safe can make a world of difference to a teen in crisis.

Say this, not that

It’s so hard to know what to say when you’re faced with a teen who is clearly in crisis and pain. That said, there are some things to avoid saying. There are also some supportive statements that you can make to keep the conversation flowing.

You have no reason to feel depressed or suicidal. It’s not that bad.

Invalidating or belittling how your teen is feeling won’t help the situation at all. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts have no target demographic. Children, teens, and adults of all ages, across all socioeconomic levels, and those with small and large families, all can fall victim to the lies that depression and suicide tell them.

Remember that suicide is not always about simply no longer living. More often than not, it’s a cry for your teen to get help with stopping the pain that he is in. Instead, ask, “How can I help?” And say, “I’m here to listen.”

I know just how you feel.

While it’s important to connect with your teen and share experiences with him, it’s near impossible for you to understand and know how he feels. This can also switch the focus away from your teen and onto you, making him feel like he’s not being heard.

Empathize with your teen as best you can, but keep him talking about how he feels while validating his emotions as real.

Just think happy thoughts.

Depression and other mental illnesses are not simply about being unhappy. Telling someone who is depressed and expressing suicidal thoughts to think happy thoughts will not be the solution they need.

Don’t be crazy. Other people have worse situations than you do. You’re completely selfish.

Each of these statements can make your teen feel worse about the fact that he feels so miserable. Life is not a contest where only some have earned the right to be depressed and feel suicidal.

When your teen is struggling, the most important thing you need to focus on is helping him with his current reality—not unfairly comparing him and his reality to others.

Your teen feeling safe enough to verbalize his feelings is very positive, even if you aren’t sure how best to respond. Feel appreciative that he chose you as his person to open up to. Don’t belittle them or diminish what they’re feeling. This is your opportunity to help him through this challenging time in his life.

Expressing suicidal thoughts is a cry for help

Your teen expressing his thoughts to you is proof that he strongly wants to be heard and stopped from having worsening thoughts or from taking further action. Generally speaking, suicidal individuals want the pain to end more than they want to end their lives.
If a teen with suicidal thoughts is turning to you for help, he likely believes you will listen to him and help to protect him when necessary. Regardless of how hard it is to hear what he is saying, what he is doing is a positive step. It also means that he trusts you.

Offering and getting help

The sooner you can get your teen help, the better it will be. Depression and other concerns that can lead up to suicidal thoughts should be addressed as soon as you are able. The unfortunate part is that many teens may be afraid to get help because it might bring them pain and shame. They fear being punished, rejected, told that they are stupid, or being forced into a type of treatment that they don’t want.

Offering your teen support, unconditional love, a judgment-free zone, and the help that he needs is the best direction to take. Your teen may be resistant to getting professional help. Still, you must help him pursue professional help, whether that looks like individual therapy or time spent in a secure and stable environment like a residential treatment center.

Being aware of the risks of suicide, along with the signs of a suicidal individual, can put you in a better position to help your teen and others who may be in crisis. It can offer you the opportunity to save a life.

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