Recognizing and Preventing Suicidal Thoughts in Children: A Parent’s Guide
As a parent, it is crucial to be vigilant and attentive to our children’s mental health. Suicidal thoughts and tendencies can affect children of any age, gender, and socioeconomic background, and it is our responsibility to recognize the warning signs and take preventive measures. By creating a supportive and open environment, staying connected, and seeking professional help, parents can play a significant role in protecting their children from the devastating consequences of suicidal thoughts. In this blog, we will explore practical steps parents can take to recognize and help prevent suicidal actions by creating a healthy dialogue with their children.
Preventing Suicidal Thoughts in Children by Creating a Healthy Dialogue
When discussing the physical and psychological safety of children, it is of the upmost importance to keep in contact with them. Find out how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their world, etc. Typical responses that parents might have when trying to communicate with their child (particularly pre-teens and teens):
- They never want to talk to me!
- They roll their eyes and get an attitude when I try to talk to them.
- They tell me I won’t understand.
Having a daily conversation (not even a serious discussion) can be daunting. As children grow, the less they begin communicating with parents. It’s not necessarily intentional, it’s biological! Children, especially teenagers, crave independence and a sense of autonomy. They are experiencing and taking in new information every single day, and the emotional weight of that can feel exhausting! While every child and parent relationship is unique, it is common to have that feeling of separation, and that can definitely hurt from the parent’s point of view.
Many parents express anxiety or fear in encroaching too much into their children’s space- whether that be asking them too many personal questions, sneaking a look into their journal, or “snooping” in their room. “How else am I supposed to find out what’s going on when they won’t talk to me about it?” Great question!
Encouraging Open Conversations
While this list is not exhaustive, it is a start to give your children the space that they need, while also encouraging open conversation:
- Set aside specific “life talks” each day at specific times. Let your child know that if there’s something they want to talk about, they will have your undivided attention for that set amount of time. Check in each day- if they say not today, that’s okay! This gives them the autonomy of choice, while also ensuring them that you are going to be there for them every time.
- Spend one on one quality time with each child at least once per week. Pick an activity that both of you will enjoy (getting your nails done, going to the movies, etc.) Come in with the expectation that you will not pry into their lives. This activity is all about fun. Children will feel freer to talk about their lives without the anxiety of parents using quality time to talk about serious things.
- Encourage self-expression and self-care. Praise their artistic endeavors! Encourage them to practice at the sport they love. When they’re doing things that they like to do, they are increasing pride in themselves. When they feel proud of things they are doing in their life, they’re going to be excited to show you.
- Encourage relationships away from you. It is easy as parents to have anxiety about the friendships that their child makes. “Will they be a bad influence?” Let’s face it- kids talk to other kids more often than they talk to you. If your child’s behavior is not changing for the worse, let them have privileges like talking on the phone for an extra hour on weekends. Friendships are sacred to children. Peers understand because they are also going through it. If you respect your children’s friendships, they will be more likely to come to you when something goes wrong in those friendships, wanting your advice.
Why is this important?
When your child feels safe coming to you about the day-to-day dramas and successes in their life, they will also be more likely to come to you about the big problems- depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. They know that you respect them enough to come and talk to you about anything on their heart and mind.
Recognize Warning Signs
Sometimes the healthiest of parent-child relationships still struggle with communication about bigger things, like suicide.
As a parent, start by armoring yourself with knowledge by educating yourself on signs and symptoms. Being able to identify the warning signs of suicidal thoughts is crucial in providing timely intervention. While each child is unique, there are common behaviors that show up:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or irritability. There is a tonal shift about how they’re communicating- they have less excitement, more anxiety, or are suddenly quicker to anger. It can be difficult to distinguish between puberty caused hormonal changes in children and active depression/suicidal thoughts (Angold, A., Costello, E. J., & Worthman, C. M. (1998).
- Risky, out of character behaviors. Examples include acting out in school, getting into fights, or seeking out adrenaline rushes.
- Social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
- Marked changes in appetite (sudden lack of desire to eat that is not better explained by sickness), sleep patterns and energy levels. This can include sleeping too often while still feeling exhausted or consistently getting little to no sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/teens-and-sleep
- Engaging in self-harming behaviors or talking about death and dying.
*Note: While not all self-harming behaviors are indicators of an intent to die, it is certainly a physical outlet for emotional pain. It can be for self-soothing or socially accepted among peers.
6. Giving away prized possessions or making final arrangements: If you see your child giving away possessions or having these conversations with friends (text, in person, etc), immediate action is needed. Intervene by calling a professional right away and explain the situation. If waitlists are long, please take your child to the nearest emergency room or call your local mobile crisis number. Mobile crisis units vary depending on your county of residence. Do not wait to act.
Pay attention to sudden shifts in behavior, academic performance, or interpersonal relationships. Trust your instincts as a parent, and if you notice any concerning signs, take them seriously. Remember that even subtle changes can be significant indicators of underlying distress.
As stated above, if you suspect your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts, seeking professional help is essential. Mental health professionals, such as therapists or counselors, can provide the necessary support and guidance. They will conduct a thorough assessment and develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your child’s needs. In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage underlying mental health conditions. Remember, involving a professional does not indicate failure as a parent but rather demonstrates your commitment to your child’s well-being.