The Depressed Teen and Suicide Risk: 6 Steps Caregivers Can Take

Posted on October 28th, 2017

If you are a parent of a teen who is at risk of suicide, then this article is for you. Let me first say thank you for being there for your teen and providing support as best you can. Being a parent of an adolescent is a challenge to begin with, but effectively supporting a depressed teen who struggles with suicidal thoughts is often a confusing, exhausting, and frightening endeavor. Without a doubt, it is a time that parents need extra help and support for themselves.

Teen suicide is a major issue, as national statistics reveal that suicide has been the second leading cause of death for young people in recent years. Since 1999, suicide has been on the rise in the U.S. If you are concerned about your teen being at risk of suicide, be sure to first educate yourself by doing research and talking to a mental health professional. There are often numerous contributing factors that lead a person to thoughts of suicide and it can be complicated. Regardless of what is behind your teen’s suicidal thoughts, below are some effective action steps that parents can take to more fully support their teens:

1. Give extra empathy. Empathy happens when you really try to put yourself in your teen’s shoes and see the world through their* eyes, even if you don’t agree with their point of view. Empathy looks like asking questions and listening carefully to develop an accurate understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Empathy feels like having that accurate understanding reflected back in a caring way. When parents operate out of a place of compassion and concern for both their teen and themselves, the stage is set for empathy.

Depressed teens need extra nurturance and kindness from their caregivers, since their depressed brains process everything through a negative filter. Try not to take their negativity too personally by keeping in mind that depression distorts their perception. When a parent is fearful of the possibility of their teen ending their own life, one typical automatic impulse is to approach their teen with urgency and anxiety out of concern for their teen’s safety. Unfortunately, this parenting approach tends to result in the youth feeling worse and even unconsciously pressured to hide their mental health issues from their parents. Although reactions such as this are natural, it is not helpful and does not provide what your teen is needing at the time: a safe and positive space to work on overcoming their mental health issues at their own pace.

As you likely already know, effectively parenting a depressed teen requires thoughtful reactions and good timing. Fear, anxiety, frustration, worry, and other forms of emotional distress can inadvertently push your teen away. The more that you can incorporate activities that stir up your sense of empathy and compassion in your daily routine, the better your interactions with your teen will go For example, some parents keep a daily journal of what they are grateful for and others read personal autobiographies of people who have struggled with thoughts of suicide. Your teen needs you to be trustworthy by acknowledging that they are the expert on themselves, by listening with the intent to understand, and by taking their words seriously, especially any statements regarding suicide.

2. Get help. When your teen is not functional or healthy enough to follow through on their mental health recovery, your teen needs for you to have firm boundaries on getting this needed help and on following through on the treatment plan. The first step in keeping your teen safe is to create a safety plan with the guidance of a mental health professional. When your teen’s life at stake, it’s important to accept that success in school and functioning in other areas are going to be compromised by your teen’s mental illness, and focus on what is essential for your teen’s survival. Some parents make the unintentional error of focusing on the depressive symptoms of worsening behaviors, and then give more consequences, which can further aggravate the depression and hopelessness. What is truly needed is for you to be firm that your teen needs help to become healthy again and that your teen must participate in their recovery. When a teen is considering suicide, they are not necessarily capable of making healthy choices regarding their mental health or believing that mental health services will be helpful. You can hold a firm boundary with expecting your teen to commit to consistent treatment, but then give your teen a voice when it comes to deciding which mental health professionals are a good match.

3. Model and coach adaptability. Many people who consider suicide are desperate for an escape from the suffering they are experiencing; their mental illness, and perhaps their environment, can limit them from seeing all their options, especially the healthy ones. Mental illnesses, such as depression, and life’s problems can condition a person to feel hopeless and helpless. Even if you can clearly see a positive solution and next steps, your teen needs you to collaborate with them, not make demands. Collaborate by paying close attention to what helps your teen be more open-minded and by brainstorming options for solving a problem. When modeling healthy coping skills and co-creating with your teen ways to work around problems, you are empowering them to be adaptable, which fosters hope that there is a way out besides suicide. Adaptability is a key ingredient to a more successful, happier, and healthier life.

4. Develop self-reliance and self-respect. Many teens consider suicide when they feel like they will never be heard or understood and feel helpless to influence the world around them. In addition to taking the time to really listen, parents can encourage their teens to participate in extracurricular activities and mental health services that provide development of skills that are related to leadership, socializing, self-advocacy, diplomacy, teamwork, and so on.  These skills will give your teen a boost in independence and self-confidence, which will prepare them to speak up for themselves when they are faced with challenging situations.

5. Strengthen buffers and protective factors. Increased supervision and removal of triggering items in the home are important aspects of safety planning for suicide risk; however, it is vital to not only be reactive, but also proactive. The more reasons teens have to live, the more ammunition they have to argue against their thoughts of suicide. Close connections with family, friends, and others create a valuable support network, which serves as a reminder that they are loved and that their loved ones are impacted by their actions. Making positive plans for the future creates hope that things will get better and motivates them to work on taking steps forward. Another protective factor is scheduling activities that line up with what your teen values, believes in, and is passionate about. It is imperative that their life feels worthwhile and has purpose.

6. Be a good role model. The action steps mentioned above are all important, and your teen needs you to role model that you are doing the same for yourself. Encouraging your teen to take steps to recover from their mental illness is asking them to make hard changes and to face challenges. Your message will fall flat if you ask your teen to take steps that you are not modeling or are ready to take yourself. Ask yourself what efforts you are making towards positive change. When you catch yourself being hypocritical – or when your teen is so kind as to point it out to you – acknowledge your mistake to your teen and suggest that you support each other in working on this shared goal. Model healthy choices that you would want your teen to take. Connect with your community, and if you don’t have a support network, then start building one for yourself and your family. Protect not only your teen’s life, but also your relationship with them, and your own well-being. Increase your self-care to avoid burn out and to sustain the ability to be giving and nurturing. Take the time to have fun with your teen and to appreciate life, to make it worth living. Take time to be involved things you value, believe in, and feel passionate about. Supporting a teen who has suicidal thoughts can be a chaotic and emotional time, so keeping in mind that being a healthy role model to your teen is a powerful tool during difficult moments. Look for opportunities to mature and grow as a result of the difficult journey you and your teen are going through together, and your teen will mature and grow with you.

*The they/theirs pronoun denotes inclusion of all gender identities.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.