When a child experiences suicidal thoughts or mental health concerns, it can be worrisome and scary. You may find yourself asking, what can I do to help? The good news is that there are ways for you to support your child and help them learn to navigate an emotional crisis.
One strategy supported by educators and mental health professionals is to increase a child’s “resilience.” Resilience is defined as the ability to cope and move forward in the face of crisis. In other words, it is the ability to tackle challenges when life circumstances are very difficult. For a long time, many felt that being resilient was a trait that kids were born with, but in reality, we now know that resilience in kids can be taught and nurtured.
In the midst of a crisis, a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts can learn to manage these painful thoughts by leaning on protective factors. Protective factors are the features of one’s personality or environment that can reduce the risk of suicidal behavior.
In some cases, a child may need help figuring out what works best for them to overcome a stressful situation. Many children already have protective factors, but they may need your help learning to use them so they are helpful in a crisis.
So, what exactly do protective factors look like?
- Coping skills – Have a conversation with your child about what coping skills are and how they can use them to feel calm and in charge of their emotions. Help them make the connection between experiencing a negative feeling (sad/angry/scared) and doing a fun or calming activity to change their mood. Don’t forget to model using coping skills! You can say something like, “Mom is feeling frustrated right now, so I am going to take some deep breaths and pet the dog to feel better.”
- Self-esteem – Work with your child on boosting their confidence. You can do this by encouraging them to take on leadership roles at home or in school. You can give them tasks that make them feel accomplished and proud. You can also start a conversation about what makes them feel worthy or what they like about themselves. Modeling is important for self-esteem as well. If you speak positively about yourself, they are more likely to look for their positive aspects as well.
- Supports and connectedness – Having others to turn to in challenging times is important for coping under stress. This looks different for each person and may include a number of different people, such as immediate and extended family members, friends, or spiritual/faith groups. If your child has few close relationships, try building their network through extracurricular or online activities, community groups, and increasing family interactions.
- School – Children spend a lot of time during the school year interacting with teachers, peers, and other school staff – even when engaged in remote learning. This means that school can have an important influence over mood and mental health. Ideally, a child has a positive experience at school and feels connected and respected. If this is not the case for your child, consider reaching out to the school for support and advocating for your child’s needs. School personnel can be a great partner in improving outcomes for your child academically, socially, and emotionally.
- Mental health care – Sometimes mood or behavior issues are severe or long-lasting and get in the way of a child dealing with different challenges. Mental health support from licensed professionals can make a big difference in outcomes for a child experiencing suicidal thinking, depression, or other mental health concerns. Each child may have different needs which could include therapy, medication, a combination of approaches, or other effective strategies. If you have concerns, be sure to discuss with your child’s pediatrician or contact a mental health agency to initiate services. Remember, therapeutic support is also provided every time you or another support person takes the time to empathetically listen to your child.
- Limiting access to weapons, medications and other lethal means - If your child is experiencing suicidal thinking or you have concern they might, removing their access to lethal means can be a life-saving intervention. Research suggests children are more impulsive than adults and move from thinking about suicide to acting on it quickly; this means that safe storage is a critical part of suicide prevention. It is critical to consider how your family is storing firearms, medications, chemicals, sharps, and anything else your child may use to harm their body.
- Ask directly - Asking directly about thoughts of suicide and means for harm is the most effective way to determine risk. Don’t be afraid to ask your child, “Are you thinking about killing yourself? What have you thought about using to hurt yourself?” These questions will not put the idea in a child’s mind.
Consider using the protective factors mentioned above to build resiliency. These are some of the best ways to reduce risk for suicide in your child. You can also work with your child to better understand their warning signs for a crisis and encourage them to use their protective and coping skills when these warning signs are noticed. You will want to discuss these concerns with your care provider but can also utilize 24/7 crisis support lines for consultation if needed.
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.