How to Help a Teenager with Suicidal Thoughts

Published on: 05 Jan 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
male teenager sitting on couch looking sad

Teenage suicide has been on the rise every year since 2007. According to the CDC, the occurrence of death by suicide in teens rose 60% between 2007 and 2018. Since then, social distancing and isolation due to the pandemic have added to the challenges that troubled teens have to face daily. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those 10 – 34 years of age.

Feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression can affect all of us from time to time, regardless of age. As our children grow up, it’s increasingly difficult to understand what’s on their minds and how they’re feeling. The reality is that teens today are dealing with crushing mental health concerns. Our job is to be there for them and help them navigate the intense pressures the world places on them. 

All parents want to understand how to help a teenager with suicidal thoughts, but when do the routine highs and lows of adolescence become something a parent needs to be concerned about?

Understanding how to help a teenager with suicidal thoughts can help avoid tragedy. Here, we’re reviewing how to spot early suicide warning signs in teenagers, along with some of the steps you can take to help your teen cope, heal, and become happy again. We’ll also be covering how teen therapy can help.

Most teens who are considering suicide will demonstrate predictable actions or behaviors. Some common tendencies or behavior associated with increased suicide risk factors include:

  • Repeated comments about dying, death, depression, or worthlessness
  • Sudden differences in occupational or academic performance
  • Decreased interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Withdrawal from socialization
  • Becoming easily irritated or angry

Knowing how to help a suicidal teenager means understanding and recognizing the teen suicide warning signs as early as possible. Helping a teen at or near the first signs of suicidal ideation is important. The sooner suicide prevention steps are followed, the sooner the healing can occur. 

“Teens can feel suicidal due to a combination of psychological and environmental factors.  Your teen might be at risk if they are dealing with things like bullying, getting in trouble at school, questioning their sexual orientation, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, or managing chaos and uncertainty at home.” 

Talkspace Therapist Liz Kelly, LCSW

Here are some more ways you can reach out to your teen and help them understand: it gets better. 

Listen to Your Teen & Acknowledge Their Feelings

Poor communication with parents can increase the risk of teen suicide. If you feel like your relationship with your teen is suffering, try stepping outside your comfort zone. Go to any length to show your teenager that you’re serious about understanding them, their needs, their fears, and their feelings. However, teens need to feel respected by their parents and be able to trust them to confide in them – not just understanding.

“Teens may not be open about the fact that they are struggling emotionally.  Take time to listen to your teen and understand their point of view before jumping in with suggestions.  Validate their experience by communicating that you understand what they are going through is really tough.”

 Talkspace Therapist Liz Kelly, LCSW

Don’t minimize or downplay the real danger of youth suicide or self-harm. Any spoken or written statement about wanting to die or disappear, or sentiments about not caring anymore should be taken seriously. Teens or young adults who have tried a suicide attempt have repeatedly stated that they were going to do something to harm themselves. These warning signs may not always be stated, however. Some signs of suicidal behavior or ideation can be shown through behaviors, preparations, actions, and/or mood. 

Never respond to a threat of suicide or self-harm disingenuously. You don’t want to say something like “I’m sure you don’t mean that!” Instead, show calm support with a sincere statement like, “I can see that you’re hurting and confused. I’m here to help however I can.” 

The truth is, teens or young adults desperately need someone to hear them. They may not show it very clearly, but most teens really crave having someone in their life who they can talk to and who can really listen to them

Ask Questions

Remember to ask questions about teenage suicidal thoughts. It can be disturbing to learn that your teenager is experiencing suicidal tendencies. Still, it’s important to be proactive. If you’re concerned that your teen is having thoughts of self-harm or is having suicidal ideation, be direct and calm and just ask: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

If your teen admits to having these thoughts, this simple question can be a true lifesaver. Assure them that you care and are committed to helping them, and then immediately seek professional help.

If your teen is not thinking about suicide or self-harm, they might be surprised by the question, or even laugh it off, claiming you’re overly sensitive – but that’s OK.

Seek Professional Help for Your Teen

If your teenager’s actions or behaviors have you worried, don’t waste time scheduling an appointment with your pediatrician. Instead, contact a local mental health professional or organization that evaluates adolescents as soon as possible. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to speak with a trained counselor. Visit our emergency resources page for additional resources for immediate help.

Watch for statements that are indicative of increased suicide risk, including:

  • “The world would be better off without me in it.”
  • “I bet nobody would even come to my funeral.”
  • “Nobody will have to worry about me in a few days.”
  • “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up again.”

If your teenager is making statements like these, take them seriously, even (and especially) if the suicidal behavior is repetitive. Fast, affirmative action on your part can save your teen’s life.

Although teenagers are quickly becoming adults, they aren’t quite there yet. They’re still beginners at dealing with the sometimes-heavy emotional struggles of life — they can become overwhelmed to the point of thinking they want a permanent solution to a temporary challenge.

Talk with your teen honestly. Tell them about the times you’ve struggled in life. Share some of the (age appropriate) things you’ve had to overcome. Be open about those difficult times. Let them know that you survived, even though it took nearly all you had in you to do it. Show them that you have felt weak before too, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Understanding how to help a teenager with suicidal thoughts is about connecting with them and offering unconditional support.

Seek professional assistance, and then do your part to help your young adult see, understand, and think past the challenges that are weighing them down. Remind them that life is as beautiful as they can imagine and allow it to be.

“It is okay if you don’t have all the answers as a parent. It can feel really scary to learn that your teen has been having thoughts of suicide and self-harm. These types of thoughts are not uncommon and help is available. Reach out for support from a school social worker, a mental health expert, or other professionals. Consider getting support for yourself as well.” 

 Talkspace Therapist Liz Kelly, LCSW

Connect with Them So They Don’t Feel Alone

Knowing how to deal with a suicidal teenager means working to develop and demonstrate a personal connection with them. Suicidal teens can feel very alone in this world, like they have nobody who “gets” them. These feelings of isolation are common and making connections can help.

Let your teen know that everyone gets depressed, anxious, and sad sometimes. Reassure them that bad times do pass. Remind them of happy times, and provide the support they need to relax and redefine their perspective on the situation at hand.

Practice good listening — don’t interrupt, make it a safe space, encourage them to open up — and think before responding (if you need to respond at all). Sometimes, teenagers don’t need you to solve all their problems. They just need you to hear them when they talk. 

Encourage Your Teen to Socialize with Others

Understanding how to help a suicidal teenager sometimes involves encouraging them to participate more in the world around them. Teenagers may put up a fuss, but most of the time, they’ll get a lot out of all those family get-togethers, social events, and personal hobbies.

Support your teen in developing personal or virtual relationships with others. Even during the times of limited physical interaction that we’ve seen since the pandemic started, teenagers can connect to others virtually, or they can join physical clubs and groups during more normal times to gain a new understanding about the challenges they’re facing. At the very least, they may bond with a peer who really gets what they’re feeling and going through. 

Plan family events and make sure your teen understands how much you want them to join in. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Disneyland. A simple cookout, a movie at home, or a family game night can be something to look forward to (even if they don’t admit it to you at the time). Help your teen transition from a sense of loneliness and hopelessness, to one of value and belonging.

Being a teenager today can be hard. Teens deal with incredible pressure that comes at them from all sides. They have intense demands from school, social media, social circles, the need to succeed for college, and everything else they face. It all adds weight on a teen’s shoulders, and sometimes, teenage suicidal thoughts are the result. Armed with the skills and tactics we’ve discussed today, you can be there for them to help them, when they need it most in their life. 

Sources:

1. Yard E, Radhakrishnan L, Ballesteros M et al. Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12–25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–May 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70(24):888-894. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7024e1.https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7024e1.htm#suggestedcitation.  Accessed December 10, 2021. 

2. Suicide Statistics and Facts – SAVE. SAVE. https://save.org/about-suicide/suicide-facts/. Published 2021. Accessed December 10, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

You May Also Like