It is difficult to be specific about what to say to a child or adolescent who may be suicidal because each kid and each family is so vastly different. There are some strategies that consistently increase the chances and speed of recovery.
Start with this:
Talk about hope
Suicide is an option only in lonely and hopeless places. As dark as that place may be, there is a way out. About 85% of people who survive an attempt do not eventually die by suicide (Suominen et al., 2004). When you talk to your child about suicide, let her know that change is possible.
Talk about suicide
It is important not to skirt the issue. Suicide is intended to end a life. The only meaningful way to talk about that is to use the words suicide and kill yourself, as difficult as that may be.
Ask lots of questions (but don’t interrogate)
I strongly urge you not to ask, Why? This tends to make people defensive. Instead, ask things like, “What is going on that makes you think about killing yourself?”
It is important to avoid the natural tendency to ask rapid-fire, solution oriented questions. The easiest way to accomplish this is to consciously and actively
Active listening hearing, processing, and repeating back what you hear your kid say in your own words is a powerful way to focus the conversation. It also helps him to maintain his connection to you. It slows the pace of the conversation so that it does not seem quite so much like you’re working-over a Bond villain hell-bent on world domination.
Allow for silence
A conversation about suicide is going to take however long it takes. Avoid the natural tendency to fill silence. Your unwavering presence in your child’s life during difficult times is the most powerful force against suicide.
Use “I language”
When you are talking about your thoughts and your feelings, take ownership of them by saying things like, I feel sad when you talk about the way that things are going for you, and, I think that we can find a way to help you feel better.
Only promise to listen
All parents have heard their kid say something like, I want to tell you something, please don’t be angry. It is possible even likely that your son will say something like this to you when talking about suicide. You cannot know ahead of time what your reaction is going to be. Your best bet in this case is to say something like, I will try to help you to fix whatever is going on.
Mean that when you say it.
Talk about reasons for living
Help your kid tie himself to his life. Get him to talk about the reasons he is still alive. If he can’t, remind him how much he means to you and how you would feel if he were gone.
After talking to your kid, no matter the outcome, it is a good idea to talk to a mental health professional about what you have heard, just to be sure.
If you have an immediate concern about your child, go to the nearest emergency room, call 9-1-1, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
And check out this research study:
Suominen, K., Isomets, E., Suokas, J., Haukka, J., Achte, K., & Lannqvist, J. (2004). Completed suicide after a suicide attempt: a 37-year follow-up study. American Journal of Psychiatry.
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.