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Teenage girl sharing problems with her mother

Difficult Conversations: Talking About Suicide

Suicide is a topic that many people find difficult to discuss, especially when it concerns a young person. Every year, thousands of adolescents die by suicide. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14. For older teens, it is the third leading cause of death. As suicide remains a growing problem among children and adolescents, it is important for parents to find ways to discuss suicide and mental health in age-appropriate ways with their children.

Having conversations about mental health and suicide can improve communication, decrease the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, and encourage children to ask for help when they need it. Most importantly, research shows us that discussing suicide with our kids does not lead to suicidal behavior.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the majority of children and teens who attempt suicide have a significant mental health disorder, usually depression. If you are worried about your child’s mental health, remember that depression and suicidal feelings are treatable.

The following is a general guide for talking about suicide with different age groups. Parents may also receive advice from their child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians can refer children to CHKD for further mental health assessment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, seek care at your closest emergency room. You can also call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Hotline.

Older Kids and Teens

Be open and honest with your teenager when talking about suicide. With the internet readily available to most teens and tweens, it is important to make sure your child has access to reliable sources of information, and that they understand not everything they read on social media is true.

This can also be an opportunity to have a caring conversation with your teen to discuss their own mental health. One way to start a conversation is to simply ask them, “How are you feeling?”

If your child shares that they are feeling hopeless or overwhelmed, you should ask them if they ever think about hurting themselves. Make sure your child knows they can come to you if they are feeling sad and have thoughts about self-harm. If you are worried that your child is in danger of harming themselves or others, your local emergency room is the best choice for care.

If your child says they are fine despite your concerns, share with them if, and why, you are worried about their mental health. Explaining your concerns can be a starting point for them to open up to you. For less severe symptoms, the best place to begin the treatment journey is with your child’s pediatrician. If needed, they can refer you to CHKD’s mental health program, which offers a variety of treatment options to match each child’s needs.

Younger kids

Like older kids, younger kids often hear about suicide from their peers or social media. Parents usually know their children best and can decide what age-appropriate information to share. If children are discussing news reports about a celebrity’s suicide or the death of a classmate, let your child know they can ask you anything. Use language that is appropriate for their age. They may not understand what suicide or depression means.

This can also be a moment when you talk to your child about mental health in general. Talk about what makes them happy or what makes them sad. Does their stomach hurt when they feel anxious? Ask them about things they can do to make themselves feel better when they’re sad, such as listening to music, riding their bike, or drawing. Help them understand they can always come to you for support and that there are coping skills for feeling sad or anxious.

Depression

Parents and kids should know the signs of depression and suicide:

  • Feeling hopeless or sad.
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Major changes in sleep or eating habits.
  • Stopping normal activities such as sports and hobbies
  • Giving away possessions.
  • Making statements that they are “burden” to others or wishing they were dead.
  • Writing or drawing about suicide.
  • Talking about or discussing a suicide plan.
  • Looking for a way to die by suicide.

If your child is in danger of hurting themselves or others, and you are not sure what to do, call 988 or go to the nearest emergency department immediately.

Grow Resiliency

Be proactive in nurturing your child’s mental health by creating structure and routine so they have a sense of control and consistency.

Here are five tips:

1. Create healthy habits.

Make sure your child gets well-balanced meals, lots of water, exercise, and plenty of sleep. Coping with stress is easier if you’re not hungry and tired.

2. Listen.

Spend quality time with your children, making face-to-face conversation a priority. Point out their strengths and abilities, and the importance of making appropriate choices and treating others with kindness and respect. Be a good listener to validate their feelings. Be honest and open if you have concerns.

3. Be media savvy.

Understand social media and establish boundaries for its use. Use parental control features on media devices to restrict access to inappropriate content. Also, limit screen time for yourself and your children so you’ll have more time for personal interaction.

4. Model ways to deal with stress.

Encourage open and honest discussion about stress, both yours and theirs. Show your child how to handle stressful situations to convey, “We will get through this, and be okay.” Model problem solving and time management techniques in your daily life, and help children apply them to their own situations. Show them ways to reduce stress, such as exercise, helping others, and spending time outdoors.

5. Reach out.

Teach your children that if they ever feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or confused by a situation or something they see on TV or online, they should reach out to an adult they trust. Model that behavior yourself by asking for help when you, or your children, need it.

The following links are resources for parents to learn more about mental health and suicide.

About CHKD

About CHKD  Get pediatric health news, health tips, and more from the region's most trusted name in pediatric healthcare. Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters is a network of pediatric healthcare services in more than 40 locations that stretch from Williamsburg to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and Virginia's only comprehensive freestanding pediatric hospital. Meet our doctors here.