Help Manage Suicidal Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

If you are unsure whether your depressed child is suicidal, there are two very important questions to get out in the open. First, ask him directly, “Are you feeling suicidal or like you want to hurt yourself?” If the answer is yes, don't become hysterical. If you react too strongly, he is likely to withhold information out of a desire not to upset you or to protect you. Stay calm but firm and ask, “Do you have a plan?” Whether the answer is yes or no, take him seriously and run, don't walk, for help.

There are several ways to talk with your child about his suicidal thoughts and feelings. First, tell him that when someone is depressed, suicidal thoughts can occur. Remind him that before he was depressed, he didn't want to die. Feeling suicidal is a symptom of depression and will go away with help.

Essential

Therapists often get a suicidal patient to make an oral “no harm” contract. If he feels he cannot control his suicidal thoughts, he promises to tell a parent, call 911, or take some other action before hurting himself. This is effective in stopping the thoughts from taking over. Parents can use this technique at home, too.

Debating the Issue

While it is important to take his suicidal ideation seriously, it is often helpful to gently argue the point that he does have a future. For instance, say his girlfriend broke up with him. He might say, “There is no one else like her. I'll never have another girlfriend. I don't want to live without her.”

You could ask if it is really true that there is no one like her. You might remind him that there are plenty of girls out there with the characteristics of his old girlfriend. You may want to ask, “You mean this is it for you? There really will never be another girl for you?” It is possible that you can get him to see where his thinking is distorted and the option of suicide is not the way out.

Using Religious Beliefs

If your child is religious and suicide is seen as a sin, it is perfectly acceptable to remind him where he will be going if he does that! It may sound manipulative, and okay, it really is. But when you are fighting for your child's life, use what you can. Ask him if he wants to be on life support in case he botches his attempt. It's cruel, but it is often enough to jolt him back into reality and see that suicide is not the answer to his problems. Last, emphasize how his death would affect you. Tell him that even though you understand his despair, you hope that he won't do something that will ruin your life.

Helping manage suicidal ideation also means teaching your depressed child how to handle adversity and uncomfortable feelings. Suicide is permanent. If he can see other alternatives for alleviating his depression, he will likely be relieved and turn to those options.

Remember that the child who wishes to die needs two things: a method and the opportunity. While you cannot control every circumstance of your child's life, with treatment and hands-on parenting, you can make the option of suicide difficult, inconvenient, and avoidable.

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