Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: This is a scary topic that no parent wants to even think about. Which is completely understandable. After all, God created us for flourishing, abundant life, and relationship with Him, not pain, sadness, or the desire to no longer live!
Unfortunately, our broken world is full of dysfunction, disorder, and sin, all of which disrupt and decay the beautiful world God lovingly created for us. And right now we’re seeing that brokenness all around us with the spread of COVID-19 causing fear, anxiety, death, and unending changes. At the moment, connections between the coronavirus and suicide are uncertain, but we can still make efforts to educate ourselves and keep our kids mentally healthy.
So what do we do when that reality hits home, when our children struggle with very real issues? How do we help our kids find physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing? In this blog post, we’re going to make you aware of some warning signs and give you some questions to spark discussion with your teen, to help you lead them toward healing.
(P.S. We’re hosting a free webinar on depression and suicide Friday, May 8 at 1:00 pm MT. Be sure to join in for discussion and community with other parents. Sign up here.)
You are not alone
First, let us assure you that if you or a loved one is struggling, you’re not alone. In 2018, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in the U.S. With the exception of accidents, suicide is the leading cause of death among young adults, teens, and children as young as age 5; 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in some type of self-injury each year.
But there is hope. Now more than ever, behavioral health providers are studying and learning about teen mental health issues, and new resources are created every year. God talks about it and deals with it directly in His Word. So, with deepest concern for your fears and sorrow for your struggles and losses, let’s talk about it, too.
Why do seemingly happy people commit suicide or self-harm?
Many teens who have suicidal thoughts or self-harm are experts at hiding their pain, sometimes because they can’t explain it well, sometimes because it doesn’t make sense to them, and sometimes because they believe it is inappropriate, wrong, sinful, or dangerous to address it openly. Therefore, it’s important to see beyond what a teen projects to what’s really going on. Some things to consider:
- Behavioral health (mental illness, substance abuse, learning difficulties);
- Personality characteristics (low self-esteem, loneliness, social isolation or exclusion, low tolerance for stress, poor coping skills or body image);
- Adverse life circumstances (death of a loved one, interpersonal difficulties, disciplinary or legal problems, abuse, trauma, serious illness);
- Risky behavior (alcohol/drug use, delinquency, aggressive/violent behavior, sexual activity);
- Family circumstances (history of suicide or self-harm, familial mental illness, parental divorce or marriage difficulties, financial problems, over/underprotective or highly critical parenting style); and
- Environmental factors (negative experiences at school, lack of respect or acceptance of differences, limited safety at school, weapons present on campus, limited access to mental health care, exposure to stigma or discrimination).
How can I know if my child is suicidal and/or self-harming?
Any one of the following behaviors could indicate your child is at risk of suicide and needs intervention:
- Talk or interaction on social media interaction about suicide or wanting to die (that, to your parental instincts, sounds like more than normal teenage hyperbole).
- Evidence of a suicide plan (such as an online search history, the obtaining of a weapon, or a stockpile of over-the-counter medications).
- Talk of “feeling hopeless,” having “no reason to live, ” feeling “trapped,” feeling they are “a burden” to others, or experiencing unbearable pain, fear, or trouble (emotional or physical).
- Statements like “you won’t have to worry about me for much longer” or “soon all my troubles will be over” (they might even begin to give away some of their stuff).
- Increasing use of drugs or alcohol, including over-the-counter medications.
- Increasingly risky, reckless behavior.
- Easily induced agitation or rage.
- Frequent sleep disturbances (too much, too little, nightmares).
- Isolation or withdrawal, especially from people or activities they used to enjoy.
- Increasingly rapid and/or extreme mood swings.
The following symptoms may indicate the presence of self-harming behavior:
- Clusters of scars, cuts, scratches, or burns on the wrists, hands, or forearms (although those who self-harm may choose any place on their body);
- Frequent bruising or use of bandages;
- Hair loss or bald patches on the scalp;
- Isolation or withdrawal;
- Wearing long-sleeves, pants, or wristbands in hot weather; and/or
- Claiming frequent accidents or mishaps resulting in injury.
How can I get my teen to talk with me about these issues?
Try starting with one or more of these conversation openers:
- “Tell me more about what is happening to you. I’m here to listen.”
- “How are you feeling? Have you felt like this before?”
- “I’m worried about you. It looks like you’re going through a difficult time.” (Then list the behaviors you’ve observed.)
- “I care. I want to listen and understand. What do you want me to know about the way you feel and what’s going on?”
- “Can you talk to me about what you’re experiencing? Do you feel like you want to talk to someone else about this? Who might that be?”
- “How can I help you feel better?”
- “What else can I help you with?”
- “Who/What helps you deal with this?”
- “Who else do you know that has experienced these issues?”
- “How can I help you find more help?”
- “Do you ever have thoughts of harming yourself?”
If you even suspect your child has suicidal thoughts or plans, take action now. Contact your family physician and tell them your teen is at risk of suicide and must be seen immediately. If a doctor cannot see them right away for whatever reason, do not leave your child alone until they can be seen and evaluated by a healthcare professional qualified to assess adolescent behavioral health. If necessary, take your child to the nearest emergency room or urgent care center, demand priority, and do not leave the physician’s office until next-steps are in place (such as referral to a specialist, assessments, evaluations, treatment plans, outpatient/inpatient programs, etc.). For more help and information, contact one of these hotlines:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-800-273-TALK
- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) or 1-800-SUICIDE
We are praying for peace, honest relationship, and trust in each and every family we serve. If there is any way we can further equip you or be praying over your family, please do not hesitate to reach out in the comments or by contacting our support line. We are here for you.
(Note: This is an excerpt from our Parent’s Guide to Suicide & Self-Harm Prevention. To dive deeper into this topic and discover more ways to discuss it with your teen, get the Guide or watch our Suicide Conversation Kit.)