SPTS Banner

Not My Kid: What Every Parent Should Know

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, Inc.

We hope the information below is helpful to you and provides valuable information that we didn’t have before we lost our children to suicide. These questions have all been asked to us by parents – and the answers provided by experts. It is important to be aware of how important it is, for you as parents, to ASK those complicated questions. 

And to keep asking them, until you get the answers that help you make educated decisions about your child’s mental health needs. We want to stress the importance of really listening to your kids and looking for any changes in feelings, behaviors, or moods that seem out of character or concern you.

If you seek professional help for them, do some research – and ask that mental health professional those complicated questions so you know what they are recommending and why they are recommending it.

You may not know…but suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24. It is important to note that most kids are generally not in a suicide crisis, however, even if the percentage of kids who may be in this type of crisis is small, it’s essential that we know what to do if we have any concerns abut our children, their friends, or their peers.

An important question is….what can YOU….as a parent do? The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide wants to address some of your questions about teen suicide. We have found that information and education are essential components of youth suicide prevention. This document will help to clarify some of the misinformation about suicide and provide practical, helpful suggestions that you can use with your kids and their friends.

The following are questions that have been asked by parents just like you.

I hear what you’re saying about suicide being the 2nd leading cause of death for kids. My son is basically a good kid with normal teenage problems. Are you telling me I need to start worrying that he might kill himself?

Not every child is at risk for suicide but we have known too many parents who felt the way you do – that their kids were just having normal teenage problems, and missed what they later realized were ‘warning signs’ of suicide.

Suicide can happen… it’s a real danger for adolescents. It is important to educate yourself about the things that may signal your child could be at risk. A good way to organize your thinking about youth suicide’s warning signs is the acronym FACTS:

F stands for feelings. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, worthlessness, emptiness, anxiousness, or excessive worry are examples of feelings that should really concern us. Talking about being a burden on the family or being trapped in a horrible place from which they can’t escape should also get our attention.

A indicates actions. Actions include things like trying to get access to a gun or pills, risky or dangerous behaviors, increasing drug or alcohol use, or getting into fights. Bulling someone else or being bullied are also actions of concern. Self-harm behaviors also fit into this category as do looking online for ways to die or hurt one’s self. Your child may suddenly stop going to school or ask to leave school early. Schools have told us that some of the actions they pay attention to during the school day are frequent visits to the school nurse or to the restroom, and problems at lunch or in

C indicates changes in moods, attitudes or behaviors. For example, kids who were active may become withdrawn, quit athletic teams, stop paying attention to personal appearance, daydream more, or start to cut class. It would be impossible to list all the potential behaviors you might see… so concentrating on simply recognizing changes in your child’s behaviors, from as little as two weeks ago, is the real key.

T shows that some kids “Talk” about suicide or actually make “Threats. These can be specific verbal statements, like “I don’t want to live anymore” or “I’m thinking of killing myself” or worrisome innuendos in text messages, blogs, or school assignments. When these statements or messages aren’t in sync developmentally with your child’s peers, you may want to explore their meaning. For example, for a 7-year-old to be preoccupied with bombs and superheroes is developmentally appropriate; if a 12-year-old shares those same preoccupations, you would be wise to see what’s going on. Whether the statements are specific or vague, what these threats tell us is that a child is thinking about death or suicide – and that’s why we need to be concerned.

S refers to “Situations” that may serve as triggers for a suicide or suicide attempt. These are situations where your child’s coping skills are really challenged… and he or she may not think they have a way out. These can include circumstances like getting into trouble at home, in school, or experiencing the loss of something or someone important like a death, the end of a relationship or something less concrete like the loss of a hope or a dream. Some children are very undone by changes in their environment. Being exposed to the death of a peer or a role model is also a situation you want to talk about. (You’ll find a handout under the ‘parent tab’ that can give you some help with that conversation.)

If you notice anything that makes you concerned… ask your child specifically and directly, especially if you see more than one of these signs. If you hear anything that makes you uneasy, get a consultation from a mental health professional. It’s the same thing you would do if you were worried that your child had a physical problem, this is really no different.

Should I talk to my child about suicide? I’m afraid if I bring up suicide that it’s going to plant the idea in his head! Isn’t it better if I don’t say any thing at all?

A lot of people get confused by this. Just like you would want to talk about drug or alcohol use with your child, it’s really important to address the issues of suicide. It’s a myth that talking about suicide can plant the idea in someone’s mind. Kids hear about suicide from a variety of sources and this is nothing new to them. In fact, talking about it can be a real relief. It’s like having a secret you feel no one will want to hear; once you can talk about and expose it to reality, you have a much better chance of figuring out what to do about it.

Are suicidal thoughts a normal part of being a teenager?

Many teens will acknowledge that they’ve had a suicidal thought at one time or another. For example, in a national study conducted every year by the Centers for Disease Control almost 18% of high school students admit to having had thoughts of suicide in the last 12 months. Almost 8% admit to making an attempt. That’s why having that conversation about suicide is so important. If you get any hint that your child may be having these thoughts, it’s essential that you ask them.

For many kids, thoughts about dying remain just that, simply thoughts. In a small percentage of kids, however these thoughts may be accompanied by a plan. That’s an extremely dangerous sign that requires immediate intervention. And again, that’s why it’s so important to ask your child about suicide if you have even the slightest reason for concern.

A classmate of my child recently took his own life. They played soccer together. I’m worried about my child but I don’t know what to say or do.

What you’re describing is an example of what’s called “exposure”, which we talked about under the FACTS. It’s the risk that comes from being exposed to the death of a peer or even a role model. First thing you should do is talk to your child about his classmate’s death. This may feel like a difficult thing to do; however, you can open the door of conversation by telling him how you feel about his classmate’s death – then ask how your child feels. By showing that you’re willing to talk about your feelings first, you model for your child that it’s okay for them to talk about theirs.

Don’t be surprised if the response is “I don’t know” or there is no reaction at all. It can be hard for teens, even for grow-ups, to find words to adequately capture the feelings of grief. Remind your child that there is always an alternative to suicide. Encourage your child to talk to you – or another “trusted adult” if he gets worried about his own thoughts or feelings, or if there is ever concern about a friend.

It is important to find ways to revisit this conversation… because feelings about a friend’s suicide may take a while to settle and don’t go away quickly.

My child’s school counselor suggested I take my child to get some mental health counseling. Apparently he made a comment about life being too hard or complicated or something like that. I’m not even sure exactly what was said. Isn’t the counselor overreacting?

Usually school counselors base these kinds of referrals on their professional experience. This recommendation was most likely developed in response to concerns from your child’s teachers or a conversation the counselor had directly with your child. First, talk to the counselor to find out why she’s concerned. Try not to be defensive. Remember that the school is obviously concerned that something you may not be aware of is going on and that your child may benefit from professional help.

It’s important for you to understand why the counselor is making this referral because you’ll need this information when you speak with a mental health professional. Most mental health agencies will have releases you can sign that give them permission to talk with the school directly. The school’s input can be critical to make sure that your child gets the services needed. It may be helpful to know that those releases only go one way. What that means is that the school has permission to share information with the counselor, but unless you specify, the counselor does not have permission to share information with the school.

My child has a drinking problem and is depressed. The doctor prescribed medication. Why would you give drugs to someone who has a problem with an addiction?

A prescribed antidepressant medication is really different from street drugs or alcohol. Prescribed medications are not designed to create the feeling of being ‘high’. They’re designed to help address your child’s symptoms of depression, anxiety or attention deficit and help them function normally.

I read that antidepressant medication can cause kids to become suicidal. Why in the world would my child’s doctor prescribe it?

There is some research that shows that a small percentage of youth had thoughts about suicide – and some made attempts when on the medication – but studies did not show an increase in youth dying by suicide. For a much larger percentage of kids the medication was helpful. Those kids had at least moderate to severe depression. For kids with milder depression… the drug benefits may not outweigh their risks.

If your child is prescribed medication, it’s important for you and your physician to carefully monitor your child’s behavior as the medication is being introduced or with any adjustments that may occur later. Educate yourself on the ways in which medication helps and also the warning signs of potentially harmful side effects.

It’s also important to encourage your child to tell you if they experience anything out of the ordinary while on the medication, and if so you should contact your physician immediately.

Try and find a good counselor or therapist who can address the issues that led to their child’s depression in the first place. It’s best to combine medication with talk therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been demonstrated to be effective for kids who are depressed and/or suicidal. Again, if you notice anything unusual or concerning, contact the prescribing physician and the therapist immediately.

My child received a text message from a friend saying she’s thinking about taking her life. What advice do I give my child in this situation?

The first thing to tell your child that you are glad they shared this information with you and that you’ll take care of it from here. Your next step is to pick up the phone and contact this friend’s parents to let them know what’s going on. Wouldn’t you want to be called if it was your child sending the messages?

A suggestion of what to say to the friend’s parents would be: “My child received a disturbing text message from your daughter talking about taking her life and I thought it was important that you know so that you can talk to your daughter about it”. In doing this, you’re also showing your child that you’re there for them when they face difficult situations.

My child just graduated high school and is going away to college. He had problems with anxiety in high school and I’m worried about his transition to college. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for him?

Because transition after high school can be one of those FACTS for some kids, it’s wise for you to be thinking about this ahead of time. College counselors have reported that one of the biggest problems they face is when parents and incoming students see college as a new beginning and want to forget about their previous mental health history. These families tend to minimize the fact that the transition to college itself is stressful and for vulnerable students in particular it can bring up some of the same old feelings and issues that challenged them in the past.

Students with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, past suicide attempts, or even recent history of loss in the family or exposure to the death of a peer present a higher risk than the general population. Before going off to college it’s important to talk to your child about campus and community mental health resources. Having that information beforehand may help your child and you feel more comfortable that support is available and accessible to help with this transition.

If you have additional concerns… please review the resources we’ve listed for you at the end of this program. You can certainly submit questions to info@sptsusa.org as well. Chances are, if it is on your mind, the information will be helpful for other parents as well.