Talking With Your Teen About Suicide: Say This, Not That
3rd September 2020
Suicide. It can be a scary word and an even scarier concept. But what do you do when it starts to become a real concern with your teen? Talking with your teen about suicide can actually reduce the likelihood that they will engage in suicidal behavior. Getting started may be intimidating, but the way we talk about suicide can make the conversation with your teen easier.
In “The S Word: How to start a conversation with your teen about suicide”, Dr. Jenna Glover with Children’s Hospital Colorado and Partners for Children’s Mental Health says the best approach is to be direct. Make sure you have your teen’s full and undivided attention and ask them, “Have you ever thought about suicide?” Dr. Glover says this sets a tone that the conversation is about their health. While it might seem like there is a right or wrong time to bring it up with your teen, Dr. Glover says there’s no need to wait until an opportunity presents itself.
Many teens are familiar with the topic. They’ve heard about it in the news, online, and in some cases it's a subject they are discussing with friends and peers. As a parent, you can help define suicide in a way that encourages your teen to reach out if they start to feel like they are struggling.
Remember these phrases when it comes time to talk. Rather than labeling someone’s suicide as “a cry for help,” say “They were in pain, and they took action.” It’s common to hear the phrase “committed suicide” but Dr. Glover advises parents against this. “We wouldn’t say someone ‘committed a heart attack’,” Dr. Glover says. “Suicide is the result of a significant illness and we need to talk about it that way.”
Here are three additional phrases Partners for Children’s Mental Health recommends when talking to your teen that put the topic in the right context, remove judgement, and strike the right tone:
- “They died by suicide.” NOT “It was a successful suicide attempt.”
- “They attempted suicide.” NOT “It was an unsuccessful suicide attempt.”
- “They are/were diagnosed with depression.” NOT “They are/were depressed.”
Whether it’s mental health professionals or teens, both agree that the best thing you can do for your teen is to be understanding and supportive. They may not want to talk about it right away, but don’t give up on the conversation altogether. Start checking in with them on a regular basis. Over time this will build a new level of trust and will allow you to build an action plan for getting help if they need it.
Mental health professionals report 25% of teens in Colorado have said they have considered suicide. Understanding how effective language can help your family is a huge part of the process. Remember, if you need help right away, call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 844-493-8255 or text the word “TALK” to 38255. You’ll be connected with a mental health counselor for free and confidential support, 24/7.