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4 Keys to Responding to a Child Expressing Thoughts of Suicide

"Mom and Dad, I don't want to live."

“I don’t want to live.”

These are words that no parent wants to hear.

I believe that, to raise resilient children, parents must build and demonstrate their own resilience. As such, this post will focus on the parent of a child who is expressing suicidal thoughts (rather than on the child) to answer some of the following questions: Is it possible to be resilient in the face of such a revelation? How can a parent respond? And what can parents do to manage their feelings to be in the best possible place to support their child?

We often speak about co-regulation in the context of child development. Co-regulation refers to the warm and responsive interactions of a caregiving adult who provides support and modeling to a child and is critical to their development of self-regulation. Co-regulation regulates the child rather than expecting them to handle their feelings alone. While critical in early childhood development, co-regulation is relevant at every developmental stage and is undoubtedly pertinent at such a moment.

Parents: This is your moment to co-regulate. To do that, you need to cope with your own feelings.

A child's expression of suicidal ideation is a painful and terrifying disclosure that will test your perception of yourselves as parents. It will threaten your sense of parental competence. It will trigger anxiety over your child’s safety and well-being like nothing else you’ve experienced.

Here are some thoughts to ground you in those first critical moments when your child makes a declaration or when you become aware that they are struggling with suicidal ideation. These thoughts should help you respond in the most supportive way:

1. Remember that this is not a reflection of your parenting. We know we are facing a mental health epidemic. In a recently released report, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that nearly one in three high school girls considered suicide in 2021, a 60% increase since 2011. In addition, almost 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide (NAMI). Unfortunately, many responsive, attentive parents do everything right (to the extent that any parent can) yet still cannot protect their children from severe mental health challenges, including suicidality.

2. This is not about you. This is about your child. Any thoughts of shame, embarrassment, disbelief, shock, anxiety, and fear you may feel now are valid. You will need a support system to manage these feelings. However, at this moment, you will need to summon the courage to focus on your child’s needs and feelings. You will need to accept what they are telling you. This is not the time to question, challenge, or disbelieve them.

3. Many external and internal forces beyond your control likely contributed to your child’s suicidal crisis. For some teens, that may include genetic predisposition, depression, anxiety, social stressors, isolation, bullying, substance use, issues with body image, and more. While it will be important over time to understand the contributing factors in the hopes of alleviating them, right now, you want to focus on what you can control: your response to this crisis.

4. The presence of protective factors lessens the risk of suicide. A significant protective factor that will increase your child’s chances for a healthy outcome is your relationship with your them. Your body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and words, at this moment, will communicate something very important to your child about that relationship. Following are a few things you should communicate:

  • This is not too big or too scary for me to handle.
  • I can handle your feelings.
  • I am bearing witness to your pain. I am so sorry you are in so much pain that you don’t want to live.
  • I can handle your pain. You don’t have to protect me from your pain. You don’t have to hide your pain from me.
  • You are safe with me.
  • I am by your side. We are handling this problem together.
  • I love you, and I will be here for you.

Be aware of the thoughts inside your head. These are thoughts that plague you with guilt, self-doubt, and recrimination. They will not help you. They will certainly not help your child. On the contrary, these thoughts will undermine your ability to be emotionally available and effectively support your child during this crisis.

It’s important to get the support you need for the challenges that lie ahead. Identify professional guidance and a peer/friend that you trust. These relationships will make a massive difference in your ability to respond in the supportive, intentional way your child needs.

So take a deep breath and face your child. Know that you can be the resilient parent they will need, now more than ever.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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