Ryan is 16 years old and a junior in high school. He is on the football team, he’s popular, and maintains good grades. His family is proud of him and they attend his games and award ceremonies. When Ryan attempts suicide, those around him are shocked and don’t understand how a kid who seems to have it all could reach the point of suicide. Meanwhile, under the surface, Ryan has been struggling with feelings of worthlessness and depression and started drinking. He posts messages on Instagram about how things will never get better and doesn’t speak to his friends as often. Then he experiences a break up, leading him to believe that people who really know him could never love him. He thinks it would be easier for everyone if he ended his life. Even up until his suicide attempt, Ryan makes efforts to mask his pain so as not to add to the burden of others – telling his parents he is fine.
As a parent or caregiver, you know your children – you’ve seen them grow up and are familiar with their strengths and challenges. It can be surprising and worrying to realize they won’t always share their lives with you. Suicidal thoughts in particular are very difficult for kids to discuss openly with parents. Even when students appear to be doing well – playing sports, getting good grades, participating in activities – they may still be struggling with depression or anxiety. While the above scenario is fictional, many families have a similar story.
In fact, we tend to overlook youth who don’t fit the typical mold for depression and anxiety. Many adults think of a depressed teen as someone who isolates themselves from others and looks sad or angry all the time. Yet we know that bright, high-achieving youth can be suffering. While on the outside it appears they are doing well, they may be putting extreme pressure on themselves to be “perfect.” And when they don’t meet those expectations, they can feel extremely anxious and depressed and may even experience suicidal thoughts.
Children and teens may not share all of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with parents, especially those that are painful or difficult. Youth often want to protect parents from feelings of stress and sadness and they are afraid to add to it. In addition, stigma related to mental health conditions continues to be a significant barrier. Youth may feel it is a sign of personal weakness to experience suicidal thoughts and want to keep them hidden.
However, there are things you can to increase the likelihood that your child will talk to you or another trusted adult:
- Check in with your child regularly. Even if your son or daughter does not want to talk every day, initiating a conversation about how they are doing, and letting them know you are there can make it easier for them to share if anxiety or depressive symptoms arise.
- Encourage healthy relationships with other supportive adults. There may be teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents or neighbors who are a part of your child’s life. The more positive, supportive adult relationships they have, the more likely they will talk to someone.
- Keep talking. There may be news stories, television shows, situations with friends or community members, or things that occur at school related to self-harm, suicidal thoughts or depression. Use that opportunity to talk with your child about their thoughts and feelings. Stress the importance of coming to an adult if they or a friend experience thoughts of suicide. Those thoughts may be a symptom of a treatable mental health condition. They are not a weakness.
- It is okay to ask directly about suicidal thoughts. Being asked directly about suicidal thoughts is often the most helpful thing you can do in allowing your child to open up.
- Finally, make it clear to your child that you value their effort and character, even if they mess up, are having a hard time in a relationship or don’t get perfect grades. Help them see they are loved regardless.
If your child reports thoughts of suicide, there are resources to help. For more information on how to talk to your child about suicidal thoughts, click here.
If your child is having suicidal thoughts, take him or her to your local emergency room immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Do not leave your child alone until you see a mental health professional. Let them know you will get through this together. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “4HOPE” to 741-741 to receive support anytime.