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Teen suicidal behavior: What to say and what to avoid, according to experts

How to spot and address troubling trends with teen suicidal behavior

Adult comforting teenager

Suicide is one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. The anguish compounds when the victim is a child.

Alarming trends are forcing parents and public health professionals into a hard reckoning. According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased by 30% between 2000 and 2018. In 2020, suicide was the 12th-leading cause of death, accounting for about 46,000 deaths — that’s approximately one death every 11 minutes and roughly equal to the number of people who die each year from breast cancer.

The problem is especially pronounced in teens, with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reporting that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 15-24.

“When young people envision suicide, it’s usually because their mental state is one of helplessness or hopelessness, and their only solution seems to be to eliminate themselves from life,” said Angela Karanja, a world-renowned adolescent psychologist and expert on parenting teenagers, best-selling author, and founder of Raising Remarkable Teenagers. “Show them they’ve got talents that the world is waiting to benefit from. Remind them of their worth often.”

That advice makes sense on its face, but actually engaging with a teen you think may be in trouble is quite another. Further, warning signs can be difficult to identify.

Here are some key tactics experts recommend when an adolescent is undergoing suicidal ideation (the medical community’s term for suicidal thoughts), so you can help with teen suicidal behavior and get them the help they need, hopefully before any harm occurs.

Mom comforting teen

Warning signs

According to Karanja and other experts, there are several potential warning signs, including but not limited to:

  • Expressions of distress: Any time someone says they want to die, it needs to be taken very seriously. But there are other red flags, such as mentions of guilt or shame, unbearable pain, feelings of emptiness, or of being a burden to others. Mood swings and emotional extremes also can be warning signs.
  • Reclusion or hiding: Many teenagers stay behind closed doors; this is not a serious sign in itself. Still, it can be a tipoff that something isn’t right. Also, look for deep or uncharacteristic sadness.
  • “Pretend” happiness: This false “hyper-happiness” is shallow and exaggerated, as if to hide the teenager’s pain. This is especially common when the teenager is with friends or in public.
  • Loss of energy or motivation: If a teenager loses interest in normal activities and social connections, these can be serious red flags.
  • Withdrawing: More than simple reclusion, this can include giving away possessions, writing a will, or even saying goodbye to loved ones.
  • Risk-taking behaviors: Examples include increased drug or alcohol use and reckless driving.
Father comforting son

How (and how not) to respond

Before you approach your teen, remember: This is a child, they are suffering, and they need your help and guidance.

“The idea is to show them compassion and care but still show them their life is their responsibility,” Karanja said. “You can tell them that whatever they decide, you’ll always love them, but would personally prefer if they chose to seek support for the problems they’re struggling with, instead of hurting themselves.”

Here are some helpful statements to consider when addressing teen suicidal behavior (and hurtful statement to avoid):

  • Let them know how much you love or care for them.
  • Remind them they are a valuable member of humankind.
  • Ask questions: Is this the first time you have pondered suicide? What do you do to cope with life?
  • Tell them how much you and the rest of their loved ones would miss them. Give specifics: their sense of humor, their bright smile, their passion for reading.
  • Remind them that the problems they are experiencing are not permanent.
  • Never use negative language. Calling someone selfish or weak — or even casually encouraging them to go through with it as a way to “call their bluff” — can all be enormously destructive.
Calling suicide hotline

How to get help

Fortunately, as the problem has grown, so have resources available to address these crises. The top such resource is arguably the recently established 988 helpline. Think of it as 911 for mental health emergencies.

People who dial 988 are connected to the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a network of more than 200 crisis centers staffed with trained professionals 24/7. These professionals can offer referrals for additional help in your community, not to mention a sympathetic and knowledgeable ear. The service is free of charge.

It’s not easy being a teenager in today’s world. Pressure and other problems seem to wait around every corner. Help your adolescent navigate these obstacles by being present. If you believe your child may need more intensive treatment, contact your doctor or a mental health professional. If the problem is particularly acute, consider a visit to the emergency room.

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Scott Harris
Scott Harris is a freelance writer based near Washington, DC, with more than a decade of experience covering health…
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