Suicidal ideations are a serious sign that something is going wrong. When children and teens talk about suicide, we might not know how to respond or what steps to take as parents. We might worry that talking about suicidal thoughts will “encourage” or “reinforce” these thoughts. This is a common misconception about ideations. We will not encourage the behavior by talking about suicide with our kids. We need to let kids express these thoughts to us rather than allowing our misconceptions and fears to get in the way of providing a safe, open environment.
First and foremost, if your child is experiencing suicidal ideations, we do not want to dismiss these as just a “cry for help” or “calling for attention.” These ideations could lead to self-harm and even death when the underlying issues causing them are not addressed or “swept under the rug.” During a talk with therapist and counselor Chris Lehman, Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey discusses the importance of taking suicidal ideations seriously every time they occur. As Aaron Huey says, “it’s a cry for help—until they can’t cry anymore.”
What Does Suicidal Ideation Look Like?
Sometimes, suicidal thoughts can manifest into actions that indicate that a teenager might be having these thoughts without disclosing them. Some things to look out for:
- Isolating themselves from friends and family
- Giving possessions away to others
- Increase in addictive behaviors, like drinking and drug use
- Engaging in risky behaviors (driving recklessly, unprotected sex, etc.)
- Appearing anxious and irritable
- Extreme mood swings
- Accumulating the means for suicide (hoarding medications or illegal drugs, possession of a firearm)
- Preoccupation with death and dying
These can be warning signs that a teenager is thinking about suicide without discussing these thoughts with us. When we see these signs, we need to act and express our concerns. Remember to be open, express concern, show that you care, and minimize your emotional reaction or “shock” if your child reveals that they have suicidal thoughts. When discussing difficult emotions, our child needs us to be, as Aaron Huey puts it, “the well-regulated adult in the conversation.”
Why Do People Experience Suicidal Thoughts and Ideations?
Kids can experience suicidal thoughts and ideations for several reasons. Typically, these feelings are rooted in feeling a loss of control or feeling hopelessness. Some causes or triggers can be attributed to:
- Having an underlying mental health issue
- Bipolar Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- History of trauma or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Any other mental health issues
- Recent loss
- Death of a loved one (including pets)
- Break-up with a romantic partner
- End of a friendship
- Significant Life Changes
- Moving to a new town
- Attending a new school
- Transitioning from one school to the next (i.e., leaving elementary school for middle school)
- Social Issues
- Difficulty “fitting in”
- Not having a romantic partner
- Feeling lonely or alienated
- Being bullied
- Low Self-Esteem
- Addiction to drugs or alcohol
- Kids identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a higher risk of experiencing suicidal ideations
When suicidal ideations or behaviors occur, they can be signs that these underlying causes are present. The child might be struggling with their gender identity or having trouble fitting in at school. Alcohol and substance use can alter brain chemistry or mask issues without solving them. Communicating with our kids and understanding what is going on in their lives can help us understand what they are going through.
Getting to the “Dark Place” to Talk With Our Kids
When we hear that our kids feel suicidal, we need to listen to their feelings and thoughts. If we shun them or dismiss their thoughts, they might not address the underlying issues causing ideations. They might act on their thoughts when not given the space to express their emotions and problems. As parents, we can validate our kids’ thoughts and feelings without encouraging the behaviors.
When kids are thinking about suicide, they are desperate to find a way out of a situation. Suicidal ideations are an “escape/avoidance” thought in its most extreme form. When we listen to our kids and validate that they are feeling upset about something or struggling with emotions, we can help them find the coping skills they need to get through.
Many kids experience emotional issues as they grow into adults. They are learning to regulate their emotions and handle situations that they have never encountered. When kids find themselves “in too deep,” they might begin to contemplate suicide as “the only way out.” In times like these, professional interventions are critical for your child to get the help they need.
If a child is experiencing suicidal ideations, we might fear discussing these thoughts with our kids. Many people believe that they might encourage or reinforce these thoughts by talking about them with our children. However, if we do not allow our kids to express these feelings without judgment or fear, we cannot identify and understand the underlying issues causing ideations. We can be the calm adult in the conversation that our child needs us to be. Sometimes, kids might feel suicidal without opening up about it. Any increase in isolation and self-destructive behaviors can be a sign that a child is contemplating suicide. If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts, engaging in risky behaviors, or becoming extremely withdrawn, professional interventions are critical. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center of Estes Park, Colorado, is here to help kids experiencing suicidal ideations. We also offer workshops and coaching for parents. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.