It’s scary when a child expresses suicidal thoughts or is struggling with mental health concerns.
You may worry about saying the wrong thing or not knowing how to help. There are ways to support children and help them through an emotional crisis.
One strategy supported by educators and mental health professionals is to increase a child’s “resilience.”
Resilience is the ability to cope and move forward in the face of crisis. It is how we tackle challenges when life circumstances are challenging. For a long time, many felt that being resilient was a trait that kids were born with, but we now know that resilience in kids can be taught and nurtured.
During a crisis, a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts can learn to manage these painful thoughts by leaning on protective factors. Protective factors are the features of one’s personality or environment that can reduce the risk of suicidal behavior.
- Coping Skills – Have a conversation with your child about what coping skills are and how they can use them to feel calm and in charge of their emotions. Help them make the connection between experiencing an uncomfortable feeling (sad/angry/scared) and doing a fun or calming activity to change their mood. You can model using coping skills! You can say something like, “I am feeling frustrated right now, so I am going to take some deep breaths and pet the dog to feel better.”
- Self-Esteem – Work with your child on boosting their confidence. Encourage them to take on leadership roles at home or in school. You can give them tasks that make them feel accomplished and proud. Start a conversation with them about what makes them feel worthy or what they like about themselves. Modeling is important for self-esteem as well. If you speak positively about yourself, they are more likely to look for their positive aspects as well.
- Supports and Connectedness – Having others to turn to in challenging times is important for coping under stress. This looks different for each person and may include several different people, such as immediate and extended family members, friends or spiritual/faith groups. If your child has few close relationships, try building their network by scheduling hangouts with potential friends, enrolling in extracurricular or online activities, joining community groups and increasing family interactions.
- School connectedness – Children spend a lot of time during the school year interacting with teachers, peers and other school staff. This means that school can have an important influence over mood and mental health. Ideally, a child has a positive experience at school and feels connected and respected. If this is not the case for your child, consider reaching out to the school for support and advocating for your child’s needs. School personnel can be a great partner in improving outcomes for your child academically, socially and emotionally.
- Mental Health Care – Sometimes mood or behavior issues are severe or long-lasting and get in the way of a child dealing with different challenges. Mental health support from licensed professionals can make a big difference in outcomes for a child experiencing suicidal thinking, depression or other mental health concerns. Each child may have different needs, which could include therapy, medication, a combination of approaches, or other effective strategies. If you have concerns, be sure to discuss with your child’s pediatrician or contact a mental health agency to initiate services. Remember, therapeutic support is also provided every time you or another support person takes the time to empathetically listen to your child.
- Limiting Access to Weapons, Medications and Other Lethal Means - If your child is experiencing suicidal thinking or you have concern they might, removing their access to lethal means can be a life-saving intervention. Research suggests children are more impulsive than adults and move from thinking about suicide to acting on it quickly; this means that safe storage is a critical part of suicide prevention. It is critical to consider how your family is storing firearms, medications, chemicals, sharp weapons and anything else your child may use to harm their body.
- Ask Directly - Asking directly about thoughts of suicide and means for harm is the most effective way to determine risk. Don’t be afraid to ask your child, “Are you thinking about killing yourself? What have you thought about using to hurt yourself?” These questions will not put the idea in a child’s mind.
These protective factors are some of the best ways to reduce risk for suicide in your child. You can also work with your child to better understand their warning signs for a crisis and encourage them to use their protective and coping skills when these warning signs are noticed. Let them know you will get through this together. You will want to discuss these concerns with your care provider but can also use 24/7 crisis support lines for consultation if needed.
If you or your child need immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, call 911 or go the nearest emergency room. You can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741-741.