What to Do if Your Child Has Suicidal Thinking

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 09, 2021
4 min read

Suicide rates are on the rise. It's actually one of the leading causes of death in the United States. However, despite ongoing efforts to solve the problem, not many people are well informed on the causes and how to help people with suicidal ideation. 

The situation becomes scarier when it hits closer home. What do you do when your child is having suicidal thoughts? Is there a way to detect signs of suicidal thoughts before they manifest? Suicide doesn’t have to be a life-and-death issue — not when you can find the right information and professionals ready to help.

Suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts and ideas are contemplations, wishes, and preoccupations with death and suicide. There is no known single cause of suicide. However, it is thought to have a relationship with various mental health conditions. Even so, it doesn’t mean that any illness causes someone to contemplate suicide. 

Previous research on the issue revealed that most people who committed suicide had interacted with a mental health professional or sought mental health services at some point in their life. It's important, therefore, to pay close attention to all verbal and nonverbal cues from people who have either contemplated suicide before or shown various warning signs.

Although it’s not always obvious, you may detect early signs of suicidal thoughts in a child. They may include:

  • Your child has actually said they want to kill themselves
  • You find a suicide note in the form of a letter, email, social media post, or text message
  • Your child finds no reason to live, feels hopeless, or considers themselves a burden to others
  • Your child has tried to commit suicide before
  • All of a sudden, your child seems like they are making final arrangements. They may say goodbye to friends or begin giving away their most valuable possessions
  • Your child makes sudden dramatic changes, like losing interest in favorite activities, withdrawing from family and friends, changes in eating habits, disregard for personal hygiene, and sudden change in body weight
  • Your child develops a sudden interest in dangerous items like guns, or you find pills for something you don’t know about
  • If your child has been engaging in unexplainable risky behavior lately, it could be a red flag. Things to look out for include drug and substance abuse, self-inflicted injuries, seeking revenge, and fits of rage

Contrary to what you may think, talking about suicide with a suicidal child will not make the situation worse. Communicating with them about the issue makes them feel that you’re concerned about their wellbeing. It might open a gateway for your child to open up about their thoughts. Other strategies that may help include:

Identify triggers. Since there is no specific cause of suicidal ideation, the best chance of preventing realization is to know what triggers the thoughts. Mostly, it will be anything that brings about feelings of despair. Try to avoid such things as anniversaries of loss, listening to sad music, or leaving at-risk children alone. 

It's essential to investigate and get to the bottom of bullying, physical abuse, or sexual trauma. It's been found that children who undergo these issues may be more at risk of suicidal ideation. Also, if your child has symptoms of mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, have them treated by a doctor to reduce the likelihood of developing suicidal thoughts. 

Have them promise not to do anything right now. As you have a conversation with your child, let them know that there is a difference between thoughts and actions. Explain that suicidal thoughts don’t have to become a reality. Instead, they can let the thoughts pass. By promising not to do anything drastic or to wait a week before considering taking action towards suicidal thoughts, you may help your child find time to recover from the underlying issue.

Keep your home suicide-proof. Get rid of or hide sharp items like knives and other blades, and keep medicines and other drugs like alcohol away. If they are on medication, be present when they’re taking it to prevent overdose accidents.

Know your child’s friends. It helps to know the people your child interacts with, even if they’re in their teens. Try to be on good terms with your kid’s friends, their parents, and school staff. In the event that your child is in danger, those close to them but away from home may be your best chance of finding out early enough. They may also be of great help when you want caring people around your child for the needed support.

Participate in therapy. Therapy for suicidal ideation begins with showing love and empathy. Along the way, it might help to find a mental health professional who has experience in dealing with suicidal children. Make an effort to get involved in the recovery process of your child.

When you’ve had to help a child out of a suicidal situation at least once, it can be an unsettling idea to leave them on their own. Despite the challenge, it's important to try to give your child normal parenting. Try not to leave a child with suicidal ideation alone, but if you can't manage, have someone trustworthy watch over them while you're gone. Always have the suicide prevention hotline on speed dial.