Conversations with teenagers: if you're worried they are thinking about committing suicide

If you’re worried that a conversation about suicide might trigger a suicide attempt, be aware that if you’re worried enough to be thinking about a conversation like this then chances are your teenager may have already thought about it themselves. Depression and anxiety actively stop sufferers from seeking help. You asking the question to get the conversation started could well be a life saving move. Another wise move is to make it clear that if there is ever anything your teen can’t tell you directly, they can always leave you a note or send you a text. To which you will have time to consider a loving response. Teenagers are sometimes worried about talking about suicide because it might upset their parents. Which it will, but no where near as much as the consequence of dealing with an attempt, or a suicide.

When to have the conversation

It may simply be parental intuition. Just knowing that they seem to be going downhill or that something’s up. Follow the nudge, if you’re wrong then EXCELLENT. If you’re not then you’re BRAVE.

You notice that they seem to have a lack of future thoughts; as in they don’t see themselves growing older or having a future.  There may be a lack of planning around what they intend to do when they have finished school/uni/their job/a holiday. Like they don’t see themselves having a life that will stretch on. This is a great place to start a conversation. Or you may be listening to them talking about plans as you realise that they haven’t actually done anything to make those plans come to life. For example, they may be talking about going to university but not actually made any moves to find out about any universities. As in none.

Everything in their life seems to be full of helplessness. It’s like they’re not really in charge at all and they’re constantly waiting for others to do something to help them along. Sometimes things do involve a bit of waiting, but all the time? No.

Your teenager may feel hopeless, say that everything is hopeless, or talk about themselves as being hopeless. Again, occasionally this works, but not all the time.

Your teenager might have initiated a conversation with you about a ‘friend’ who is thinking about committing suicide. Don’t ever let those conversations go, sometimes teenagers are simply testing your reactions out. I’d be inclined to ask them if their friend has a plan and the means and take the conversation from there.

One of their friends may have committed suicide already. If this is the case you need your teenager to have unlimited access to top quality counselling. But still keep talking to them.

The 3 questions to ask

  1. Have you thought about killing yourself?

  2. Do you have a plan?

  3. Do you have the means?

Let’s break these questions down

Question 1: The big brave opening question: “Have you thought about killing yourself?”

If they say “No” you will have a feeling of calm. You can tell them “I’m relieved to hear that.  Please promise me that you’d come and talk to me if this situation ever changes.”  And extend the conversation with open ended questions like “How are you managing at the moment?”  “What things are you doing to help yourself?  How are they going?”  “Is there anything I can help with?” Now is timely to add that if they ever want to tell you something but don’t know how to that notes, text and messaging are all acceptable alternatives. You may also want to explain to them why you felt like this was a good question to ask them. Let them know you notice them. And of course, tell them you love them. No matter what.

Question 2: to be asked if they say “Yes”. The question is “Do you have a plan?” You will be feeling panicked and gutted at the same time. Know your triggers and don’t go there. Instead be outwardly calm. Keep reminding yourself that this is not about you. If they say “No” then you can be mentally congratulating yourself for brave and onto it parenting.  A big hug is required here.  Don’t stop talking now (tempting because you will be in shock) instead, go with the following open ended questions. “What things are you doing to help yourself?  How are they working for you?  What can I help you with?” And listen to their answers. Really listen. It’s not worth going into the why’s of their feelings right now. Save that conversation for a time in the very near future. You may find that the why’s can only lead to further upset, when really you are wanting to be proactive and empowering. Things will be emotional enough after a conversation like this and yes, the why’s are important, but don’t let them drag you away from the more important next steps you can help them with.

If they say “Yes”.  Keep telling yourself it’s not about you. This is about them and their pain. Get them talking with questions like “Tell me about it.”  “What are your intentions?”  “Who else have you talked to about this?”  “What is your timeframe?”

Question 3: to be asked if they say they have thought about killing themselves and they have a plan.  “Do you have the means?” Right now you’ll be hoping they say “No.”  A big hug is required here.  This is a true cry for help. Ask them “What things are you doing to help yourself?”  “How are they working for you?”  “Is there anything I can help with?” in a loving and non judgemental way. Don’t let the conversation lapse without some kind of way to move forward together.

 But if they say “Yes”.  Tell them “You’ve taken a brave step by sharing so honestly.  How can I help you?”  Do you think this is the best choice?  Is it the only way forward?  What are some other options you can think of?  How can I help?  Explore options together. Be open, be accepting, be non-judgemental and be loving. This is your time to fight for the person you brought into the world and to do the very best for them. You are in a unique position to be trusted with their feelings and their hearts. Treat them tenderly.

How many conversations like this did you have as a teenager? Probably none. You may well be feeling completely unprepared. Be kind to yourself. Going into an important conversation with an attitude of love and empathy will get you through. As ever, reach out for coaching and support if you need it.