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a Photo of Dr. Lynn Brown, the author of this article about protecting kids from suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Lynn Brown is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the United Kingdom and a Kidpower International Mental Health Advisor.

Most people including kids have times when they feel very down and can’t see how things can get better. A few feel this so deeply that they think about, or act to end their life. Caring adults can prepare themselves to recognise, and work to protect kids from, these suicidal thoughts and actions.

Young people have a lot going on in their lives: managing increasingly complex relationships including intimate relationships; peer pressure around risky behaviours such as drug or alcohol use; hormonal and body changes; academic pressures etc.  This can mean that when things go wrong, it feels overwhelming.  Some young people have limited or no support, difficulty in solving problems, or tend to act impulsively.  They may feel that no-one can or will help them and that killing themselves is the best way out.

Some kids seem to have something bad happen that suddenly causes them to be overcome by despair. Other kids seem to get worn down by harassment or other difficulties.  The situation can be worsened if adults don’t recognise the problem.  Some of these young people will develop a mental health problem such as depression on top of the sadness or anger they feel about what is going on in their lives.

The risk of suicidal thoughts, and actions, is higher when a young person:

  • Is depressed, or if they have a serious mental illness
  • Uses drugs or alcohol when they are upset
  • Has tried to kill themselves a number of times before
  • Has planned for a while about how to die without being saved
  • Has a relative or friend who tried to kill themselves.

How can adults protect kids from suicidal thoughts?

Imagine that a young person is learning to walk on a tightrope.  At times they will fall, land in the safety net, and then climb back up to try again.  This is similar to a young person finding their way through life.  At times they will be knocked off balance e.g. by an argument with friends, or bullying, but a safety net helps them to get back on track again.  A good safety net will have multiple strands which might include:

  • good relationships with caring, supportive parents or carers
  • positive peer relationships
  • relationships with other supportive adults e.g. wider family, neighbour, teacher, youth leader
  • positive social roles such as playing on a team, helping  a sibling or neighbour
  • having a special skill or interest
  • helpful lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet, enough sleep and exercise
  • personal skills such as problem solving or being able to seek and accept help
  • input from a therapist

Helping kids with suicidal thoughts will involve drawing on the support of each of the strands in their life, and where necessary establishing new ones.  When people feel down, they will often withdraw from the very things that are likely to be helpful!  Gently supporting them to resume helpful activities, and to accept help from others is important.

As a parent, it’s really hard to cope if your kid talks about or attempts suicide. It’s normal to feel angry, frightened or guilty. You may wonder how seriously to take it.  There are a number of things parents or carers can do to help kids in this situation:

  • As hard as it is likely to be, your first job is to calm down. Take a big breath and say, in a quiet and matter-of fact voice, “I’m so glad you’re telling me this. I’d like to help – please tell me more about what is going on so we can figure out what to do.”  If you act upset your child is likely to get upset too. She might want to protect you and herself from your reaction by not telling you about problems in the future or by denying that anything is wrong.
  • Encourage them to talk about their worries and take them seriously. These could include exam pressure, or falling out with friends, through to bullying and abuse.  Let your child know that their safety is your top priority.  Work together to plan how your child can be safe from suicidal thoughts as well as any other safety problems such as bullying.  This can include the practical approaches below, as well as seeking professional help.
  • Notice when your child seems upset, withdrawn or irritable. If you wonder if they might be having thoughts of suicide it’s OK to gently ask “Sometimes when people feel very down or angry they can feel like life’s not worth living.  Have you felt that way?”  Asking about suicidal thoughts reduces risk, it does not increase it.
  • Agree how your child can tell you if they are having suicidal thoughts.  Some kids find it impossible to tell people this, but they can use a phone call, written note, text message, or holding up a coloured card to let you know they need extra help.  Ask what your child would find it helpful for you to do: some kids want to talk, others might like you to sit with them quietly, or to join them in an activity.  If your child doesn’t know what would help, make a list of ideas together and work through them when the time comes.  Some kids find it helpful to make a pinboard, book, or special box with items that remind them of positive people and things in their lives, and they look at this when they feel down.
  • If your child tells you they have been thinking of suicide, it’s helpful to calmly ask what sorts of things they had been thinking of.  This can give you both clues about what should go in the safety plan e.g. if they’d thought of hanging themselves with a rope in the garage, part of the safety plan could be that the rope is removed.  Or if they were thinking of jumping from a multi-storey car park, the plan could involve ideas about how they can avoid being near this area until they feel better, and who they would tell if they felt they were more likely to act on their thoughts.
  • Buy blister packs of medicine in small amounts. This helps prevent impulsive overdoses. Getting pills out of a blister pack takes longer than swallowing them straight from a bottle. It may be long enough to make someone stop and think about what they are doing.  Keep medicines locked away.
  • If you have a gun in the home, ensure it is locked away and that the young person can’t access it.  Never assume a kid doesn’t know about a gun in the house.
  • If a young person has injured themselves, you can help practically by checking to see if injuries (cuts or burns for example) need hospital treatment and if not, by providing them with clean dressings to cover their wounds.
  • Seek professional help from a clinician with experience of working with young people who are having suicidal thoughts.  See our separate article about choosing a therapist for further information.
  • Remember that relationships are one of the key strands to supporting your child.  This means that as well as supporting them with serious problems, you also need to have normal family time together.  This can be as simple as preparing meals, or watching TV together, or having a movie night or pampering session.

When therapy doesn’t work

Many young people find the input of a therapist very helpful. However, there are lots of reasons why therapy sometimes doesn’t have the effect young people or their families hope for. Maybe the style of therapy was not a good fit.  Maybe the young person didn’t feel confident in the therapist’s ability to help them. Maybe there were not enough strands of the rest of the “safety net” in place.

When therapy doesn’t help, young people can view this as evidence that they are fundamentally flawed or incapable of being helped.  They need to know that a different therapist or type of therapy may suit them much better.  Parents and carers also need to remember that a therapist is only one strand of the safety net, and work with the young person to build a strong and diverse web.  This could include:

  • Supporting your child to be in touch with positive peers
  • Working to improve any difficulties in family relationships (it’s common for parents and children to start having problems when a young person becomes unhappy – acknowledging problems is not the same as being to blame).  You might find it helpful for a therapist to support you with this.
  • Encouraging them to eat healthy food  – maybe by preparing meals and eating together
  • Taking part in activities that the young person usually enjoys e.g. sports, playing a musical instrument, attending a youth group
  • Helping your child to solve problems that are troubling them (e.g. being picked on at school)

It’s easy for parents to feel overwhelmed when their child is having such worrying problems. Being aware of your own need for support and using your own “safety net” are critical to ensuring that you can provide the help that your child needs. If you are feeling that you cannot cope, it is important to seek help for yourself sooner rather than later.

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Author Dr. Lynn Brown is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the United Kingdom and a Kidpower International Mental Health Advisor.