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What Do I Do If My Teen Is Thinking About Suicide?

05/26/2013 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

They say that the worst pain in life is losing a child. When parents hear that their child is thinking about suicide, or has even tried to commit suicide, they often become paralyzed by the fear that they will say or do something that will lead their child to take their own life. Many parents coming into our suicide prevention programs say "I feel like I am walking on eggshells and don't know what to do." Yet, parents are rarely involved in treatment to any great extent. In fact, we have heard from many parents that they have been discouraged from participating in their child's mental health treatment!

Our reply is simple: if a teen is living at home, effective teen suicide prevention must involve parents or guardians. So, how can parents and guardians help? We offer eight tips based on years of clinical work and research with families with teens who have thought about or actually tried to commit suicide.

1) Learn the warning signs for teen suicide (www.aacap.org/page.ww?name=Teen+Suicide§ion=Facts+for+Families). Don't mistake them for typical teenage behavior.

2) Take ALL suicidal statements seriously. Some parents think their teens threaten suicide to manipulate them or a situation, so it is okay to ignore these statements. The fact is that parents can never be 100% certain that this is the case and the cost of being wrong is too great to risk. Teens may act on suicide threats to prove their parents wrong or gain attention and end up accidentally taking their lives. Teenagers do not accurately estimate the lethality of methods of self-harm. If a teen threatens suicide, regardless of intent, there is something wrong and professional help is needed.

3) Talk to your teen about suicide. Many parents are afraid that if they talk about it, it will lead to their child to think about suicide. This is a myth! Research suggests just the opposite -- for many teens it actually decreases suicidal thinking and is a relief to share such a painful "secret" with their parents.

4) If your teen shares suicidal thoughts, do your best to respond calmly and rationally. Many teens do not share suicidal thoughts with parents because they fear that their parents will "lose it" emotionally or not be able to respond in a way that is helpful. Some also share that they do not want to be a burden to their parents. Let your teen know that you can handle it and can help.

Many parents are afraid that if they talk about it, it will lead to their child to think about suicide. This is a myth! --Christy Esposito-Smythers

5) Become knowledgeable about good, helpful mental health treatments for teenagers. There are many treatment approaches for teenagers with mental health difficulties, but not all of them work. The American Psychological Association (Division 53) has an excellent resource for parents seeking treatment for their children and adolescents (www.effectivechildtherapy.com).

6) If your teen does have suicidal thoughts, it is incredibly important to remove or lock up any objects that can be used to hurt him/herself. For example, if your child is prescribed medication, keep it locked up, dispense it to your child, and make sure that it has been swallowed. Some teens try to stockpile large amounts of medication and you want to avoid that! Other lethal means (including bottles of Tylenol, razors, guns, etc.) should also be removed from the home or locked up while teens are in a high-risk period. Suicidal acts can be impulsive. However, if it is hard to actually find something to use to hurt oneself, the suicidal impulse may pass without any self-harm.

7) Seek your own mental health treatment if needed. Everyone goes through difficult times. Parenting itself can be highly stressful even under the best of circumstances. We tell parents to think of themselves as the captains of a ship, if they go down, so does the ship. To most effectively help your child, you must take care of yourself!

8) Finally, be aware of social media and what your teen is doing online! Bullying often happens online now and if your child is a victim, this can contribute to suicidal thoughts. Often teens share comments about suicide on Facebook or other online outlets.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults. Effective suicide prevention strategies are sorely needed. Parents are a critical part of the solution. Our clinical research team has one of the few successful programs shown to reduce suicide attempts in teenagers, and we feel that it is largely due to the parent education and training that is part of the program. If your teen struggles with suicidal thoughts, know that you are part of the solution and work with the mental health provider to learn how to best help your child!

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