Talking to Your Teen About Suicide Prevention

Suicide remains the second most common cause of death for children, teens, and young adults, and it’s clearly alarming to hear a loved one talk about killing themselves. Many of us have lived our entire lives without seriously considering the idea of suicide, but for hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults, it’s a thought that crosses their mind more than once.

Different risk factors, mental health issues, and experiences can influence the decision to try and take one’s life, and it’s important to acknowledge and talk about these feelings in order to address them before they lead to action. It’s especially important to address the topic of suicide given today’s mental health climate.

COVID-19 has seen a spike in virus-related deaths, but also deaths of despair as a result of isolation, economic desolation, and general anxiety. For every completed suicide among teens, there are about 25 suicide attempts. While the risks and symptoms are not always obvious, there are often opportunities to recognize a teen’s troubling thoughts and help them find a better alternative to their pains and worries.

Why Teen Suicide Occurs

Teenagers and middle-aged adults are more likely to take their own life than children or the elderly. For children with traumatic and difficult beginnings, the teen years are often the years when the effects of those traumas manifest most strongly. Puberty is often also the onset for more severe symptoms of depression or general anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.

Many teens who contemplate suicide feel that they aren’t just in pain, but that they generally have nothing to look forward to. Even if moments and memories of joy serve to undermine that feeling in most people, a condition such as depression is so overwhelming in its hijacking of the mind that these memories have no chance of arguing against suicide.

Most people who have contemplated suicide and then survived the attempt feel gratitude immediately afterward, but in those few moments preceding their attempt, the mind is incapable of wrestling with anything except negative thoughts and self-denigration. Once the moment passes, however, a teen may be able to think themselves back into a neutral or happier state of mind.

Oftentimes, successful suicide prevention is about helping a teen find their way back towards that healthier state of mind by fighting back against their inner self-deprecation, and helping them find reasons to live just long enough for the passing urge to go away.

Suicide Risk Factors

The factors behind suicide are complex and vary greatly from teen to teen. While it’s impossible to detail every potential cause and factor, some of the most significant risk factors for teen suicide are:

    • Socioeconomic factors (race, class, income)
    • Physical health (chronic conditions may accelerate feelings of despair)
    • Signs of depression and/or anxiety
    • Psychosis
    • Childhood or recent trauma
    • Recurring stress and/or victimization (bullying)
    • Regular or excessive substance use
    • Reckless or uncharacteristic behavior
    • Family history of suicide and/or depression
    • Previous suicide attempts

Some important warning signs to watch out for include:

    • Signs of self-harm or cutting
    • Frequently discussing death, being preoccupied with death and ways to die
    • Often feeling hopeless or worthless, or useless
    • Social withdrawal
    • Problems at school, inattentiveness
    • Sudden weight loss or gain

Teens who consider suicide aren’t weak or cowardly. Instead, they are often beset with factors or conditions that make it much harder to withstand the pressures and circumstances they face, leaving them with an overwhelmingly bleak outlook that purposefully ignores all the positives in their life, and amplifies the dark.

Without a first-hand experience of depression and depressive thinking, it doesn’t serve to compare yourself or your outlook with a suicidal teen when discussing something like suicide or depression. Instead, offer support and help. Support and help are critical in suicide prevention.

How to Approach the Subject of Suicide

Don’t be afraid to address the subject to begin with. You may be worried about discussing suicide with a loved one out of fear that mentioning it will somehow make matters worse. But it’s doing the opposite – ignoring it – that can lead to the idea festering and growing unchecked. Simply providing a loved one with the opportunity to openly talk about how they feel and what they want to do can make a big difference right away.

Don’t make it about yourself or dismiss their concerns. Try to focus on listening and giving them questions to answer and making sure they know you want to understand why they feel the way they do. Sentences like “I had a tough time, but I got over it” or “why would you feel this way when you’ve got it so good in life?” only serve to shut down conversation and teach your teen that they can’t talk to you about how they really feel.

Don’t lose touch. If you feel that a loved one is at risk for harming themselves, one of the best things to do is try and be at their side as much as possible. Invite them to do more things with you. Spend extra time with them after school. Plan a trip. Do something mundane together like cook or grabbing groceries. Don’t let them feel isolated or alone.

Talk in earnest but prioritize compassion. If you haven’t tackled similar thoughts and experiences in the past, chances are you may not completely understand the way your teen feels, and that is alright. You can still be honest when discussing suicide with them, but always try to remember how they feel, and keep their feelings at the forefront of the discussion. Be compassionate, and make sure they understand that as a friend, relative, or parent, you love them first and foremost, and want to help them.

Other Resources

Ideally, you should consider speaking with your teen about visiting a mental health professional specializing in adolescents. If there is a chance that your teen’s thoughts are tied to a mood disorder or some other mental health condition, then an early diagnosis and treatment plan can provide a great deal of help.

Make sure your teen understands that you aren’t trying to medicate them or shut them up, but to help them better deal with irrationally dark thoughts and negative feelings and help them find balance. Some other helpful resources include:

Bullying Mental Health Parenting Recovery Suicide

Bullying: Helping the Bullied and the Bully

Compassion (Photo credit: Sarit Photography)

As National Suicide Prevention Week continues, I realize we can’t let the week pass without talking about bullying. The recent documentary Bully deftly brought to light egregious bullying behavior, some of which led to suicide. The conversation continues, however. We are more aware now that the bullied child is suffering, often in silence, and often filled with shame and anger about why this is happening to them. They are always asking the eternal question, “Why me?”  Unfortunately, there are still an alarming number of bullying incidents that go undetected, and there continues to be a systemic problem in the way we deal with the bullies themselves and the children being bullied.

Children who are bullied won’t typically tell anyone this is happening,  typically feeling helpless in their endeavors to get help. From the bullied child’s perspective, there is an implication of great risk in asking for help. Experience has proven the bully makes sure they live in a state of fear of retaliation. This is particularly true when dealing with verbal bullying such as name calling, exclusion, ostracizing, rumors, racial, cultural, and sexual taunts. In these cases, proof is often difficult. This presents a catch-22 situation for parents, teachers, and administrators: it becomes one child’s word against another’s. As parents, we have to play the role of detective and suss out the situation, looking for key emotional and physical signs that our child is being bullied.

From Sheri Werner’s book In Safe Hands: Bullying Prevention and Compassion for All, she lists the following things to look for if we suspect bullying:

  • Becoming moody or short tempered.
  • Finding excuses for not wanting to go to school.
  • Claiming physical illnesses such as stomachaches and headaches that may have, in fact, actually evolved into such physical symptoms.
  • Returning to bedwetting.
  • Beginning to have nightmares.
  • Developing either a lack of appetite or increase of eating compulsively.
  • Having difficulty concentrating.
  • Deterioration in the quality of schoolwork.
  • Having insomnia, anxiety.
  • Starting to become quiet, withdrawn.
  • Exhibiting physical signs like bruises, torn clothing, scrapes, and so on.
  • Expressing sadness and/or violence in writing or drawings.
  • Displaying unusual acting out behaviors.

Bullying doesn’t have to end in suicide. Suicide is never the answer. You are your child’s greatest advocate. You have a multitude of options:

  • Individual counseling/therapy
  • Group counseling/therapy
  • Form your own support group
  • Become informed.
  • Go to the school: find out what they have in place for bullying prevention.
  • If they don’t have anything in place, take steps to help develop a school anti-bullying policy.


I’ve seen this more times than I care to admit: a bullying situation resulting in the bullied child being punished and/or being told to “ignore” the bully or try to “make friends” with him/her. In truth, the child bullied needs support and compassion. But so does the bully. Yes, you read that right. The bully needs support and compassion as well, and more than likely an intervention of sorts. I truly believe that bullying is a symptom of a greater problem. What that problem may be isn’t an excuse for the negative behavior, but it still needs to be addressed.

There’s no doubt that it’s difficult to find compassion for a child who bullies, because their behavior is so hurtful and over the top, but suffering comes in all shapes and forms and it behooves us to take this into consideration.  A kid who goes home to violence, neglect, etc., or who suffers from unaddressed mental illness or a learning disability, or who didn’t have sufficient emotional connection in their early years may not know how to handle problems that arise. From the perspective of the administration and teachers, this is really an opportunity (and challenge) to A: monitor the bully, and B: help redirect and reteach the bully to change their thinking and behavioral processes to fit into a healthier social model. For the bully, their saving grace might just be the school they are in, if that school has methods in place to help them. The key is not to give up on them; they, too, deserve a chance to recover and change.


There are resources out there! You are not alone in this, regardless if you are the parent of the bullied or the bully. (elementary and middle school) (high school)

Books to read:

The Mindful Child – Susan Keiser Greenland

In Safe Hands: Bullying Prevention With Compassion for All – Sheri Werner

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