7 Essential Steps Parents Can Take to Prevent Teen Suicide

Depressed teenage boy

In this blog post, APA President-elect Nadine Kaslow and her colleagues offer parents advice on how to prevent teen suicide.

By Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, Polina Kitsis, Mili Anne Thomas, MA, and Dorian A. Lamis, PhD

Parents Can Make a Difference

Every day, about 12 youth die by suicide. For every adolescent death by suicide you hear about, about 25 suicide attempts are made. These are staggering statistics. We know that families, schools, peer groups, and communities are dramatically impacted when young people engage in suicidal behavior. We want to help you prevent these tragedies.

Parents can help prevent suicide by recognizing warning signs, identifying risk factors (characteristics that may lead a young person to engage in suicidal behaviors), promoting protective factors (characteristics that help people deal with stress and reduce their chances of engaging in suicidal behaviors), and knowing how to talk to their children and seek mental health services. You can empower yourself and your teen by following these 7 steps.

1. Know your facts

Information is power and too much misinformation about suicide can have tragic consequences. Separating myth from fact can empower you to help your teen in distress.

Myth – Suicide in youth is not a problem

Truth – Suicide is a major problem affecting youth; it is the 3rd leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds

Myth – Asking about suicide causes suicidal behavior

Truth – Addressing the topic of suicide in a caring, empathetic, and nonjudgmental way shows that you are taking your child seriously and responding to their emotional pain

Myth – Only a professional can identity a child at risk for suicidal behavior

Truth – Parents and other caregivers often are the first to recognize warning signs and most able to intervene in a loving way

2. Recognize the warning signs

Studies who that 4 out of 5 teen suicide attempts are preceded by clear warning signs, so make sure to know them. A warning sign does not mean your child will attempt suicide, but do not ignore warning signs. Respond to your child immediately, thoughtfully and with loving concern. Don’t dismiss a threat as a cry for attention!

Changes in personality: sadness, withdrawal, irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, indecision
Changes in behavior: deterioration in social relationships and school and/or work performance, reduced involvement in positive activities
Sleep disturbance: insomnia, oversleeping; nightmares
Changes in eating Habits: loss of appetite, weight loss, or overeating
Fear of losing control: erratic behavior, harming self or others

3. Know the risk factors

Recognize certain situations and conditions that are associated with an increased risk of suicide.

Previous suicide attempt(s)
Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety)
Alcohol and other substance abuse
Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, worthlessness, low self-esteem
Loss of interest in friends, hobbies, or activities previously enjoyed
Aggressive behavior
Bullying or being a bully at school or in social settings
Disruptive behavior, including disciplinary problems at school or at home
High risk behaviors (drinking and driving, poor decision-making)
Recent/serious loss (death, divorce, separation, broken romantic relationship,)
Family history of suicide
Family violence (domestic violence, child abuse or neglect)
Sexual orientation and identity confusion (lack of support or bullying during the coming out process)
Access to lethal means like firearms, pills, knives or illegal drugs
Stigma associated with seeking mental health services
Barriers to accessing mental health services (lack of bilingual service providers, unreliable transportation, financial costs)

4. Know the protective factors

These factors have been shown to have protective effects against teen suicide:

Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and handling problems in a nonviolent way
Strong connections to family, friends, and community support
Restricted from lethal means of suicide
Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation
Easy access to services
Support through ongoing medical and mental health care relationships

5. Take preventive measures

You are not powerless; you can guard your teen against the possibility of suicide.

Interact with your teen positively (give consistent feedback, compliments for good work.)
Increase his/her involvement in positive activities (promote involvement in clubs/sports)
Appropriately monitor your teen’s whereabouts and communications (texting, Facebook, Twitter) with the goal of promoting safety
Be aware of your teen’s social environment (friends, teammates, coaches) and communicate regularly with other parents in your community.
Communicate regularly with your teen’s teachers to ensure safety at school
Limit your teen’s access to alcohol, prescription pills, illegal drugs, knives and guns
Talk with your teen about your concerns; ask him/her directly about suicidal thoughts
Explain the value of therapy and medication to manage symptoms.
Address your concerns with other adults in your child’s life (teachers, coaches, family)
Discuss your concerns with his/her pediatrician to seek mental health referrals

6. Talk to your teen about suicide

Talking to your teen about a topic like suicide can seem almost impossible. Have this important discussion with your teen by using these tips.

Talk in a calm, non-accusatory manner
Express loving concern
Convey how important he/she is to you
Focus on your concern for your teen’s well-being and health
Make “I” statements to convey you understand the stressors he/she may be experiencing
Encourage professional help-seeking behaviors (locate appropriate resources)
Reassure your adolescent that seeking services can change his/her outlook

7. Last but not least, seek mental health services

Mental health professionals can be essential partners in teen suicide prevention.

a) Take appropriate action to protect your child

If you feel that something is “just not right”
If you notice warning signs
If you recognize your child has many of the risk factors and few of the protective factors listed above

b) Find a mental health provider who has experience with youth suicide

Choose a mental health provider with whom your child and you are comfortable
Participate actively in your child’s therapy

c) If danger is imminent, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room

National Resources

1-800-273-TALK (8255) – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

American Association of Suicidology: http://www.suicidology.org

Light for Life Program: http://www.yellowribbon.org/

National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Resources http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

National Mental Health Association: www.nmha.org

S.O.S High School Suicide Prevention Program: http://www.mentalhealthscreening.org/highschool

Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE): www.save.org

Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder (SPTF): http://www.HelpPRO.com/SPTF
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Susheela Thomas -Sommer MD on September 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Excellent article. Great information put in a concise manner. We need to get this message out to prevent the tragedy of suicide that can be prevented by public awareness and good counseling.Thank you!

Joe Glass on September 23, 2013 at 10:54 pm

My older son lost his best friend in High School to suicide. James took his own life at 15, just three weeks shy of his 16th birthday. It truly is a tragic epidemic that does not seem to have an end in sight. After 17 years as a firefighter/paramedic, I have seen my share of suicides, both attempted and completed. I am retired, and in Grad School, with the goal of CBT Therapist/Counselor, specializing in teens/preteens. Thank you for the article, as there can never really be enough awareness/education to this problem.

Gwen on September 24, 2013 at 11:26 am

This is an amazing must read for every parent! Thank you for putting this together in such a clear and useful format.

Steven D. Flores on September 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thank you for providing this material. I am not a parent [yet], but the material presents qualitative data so parents can understand.

I lost a friend to suicide, some years’ ago. As I came to understand, he was ‘stuck’ in the personal issues that encompassed his life. . .
Bill Blout on September 30, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Excellent article with important information. You may want to add our Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder (SPTF) at http://www.HelpPRO.com/SPTF as a resource. Thanks.

William L. Blout, LICSW
President, HelpPRO

Administrator on September 30, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Thank you for sharing this resource. We will update the blog post with this information


Please Make Note

Please make note that I, Jessica Lynn Hepner the creator of What Every Parent Should Know, is not giving legal advice. I am not a lawyer. I am giving you knowledge via first hand experiences.

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Save A Life by Angie Kassabie

Save A Life by Angie Kassabie
I URGE ALL MY FRIENDS TO READ & SHARE THIS; YOU COULD SAVE A LOVED ONES LIFE BY KNOWING THIS SIMPLE INFORMATION!!! Stroke has a new indicator! They say if you forward this to ten people, you stand a chance of saving one life. Will you send this along? Blood Clots/Stroke - They Now Have a Fourth Indicator, the Tongue: During a BBQ, a woman stumbled and took a little fall - she assured everyone that she was fine (they offered to call paramedics) ...she said she had just tripped over a brick because of her new shoes. They got her cleaned up and got her a new plate of food. While she appeared a bit shaken up, Jane went about enjoying herself the rest of the evening. Jane's husband called later telling everyone that his wife had been taken to the hospital - (at 6:00 PM Jane passed away.) She had suffered a stroke at the BBQ. Had they known how to identify the signs of a stroke, perhaps Jane would be with us today. Some don't die. They end up in a helpless, hopeless condition instead. It only takes a minute to read this. A neurologist says that if he can get to a stroke victim within 3 hours he can totally reverse the effects of a stroke...totally. He said the trick was getting a stroke recognized, diagnosed, and then getting the patient medically cared for within 3 hours, which is tough. >>RECOGNIZING A STROKE<< Thank God for the sense to remember the '3' steps, STR. Read and Learn! Sometimes symptoms of a stroke are difficult to identify. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness spells disaster. The stroke victim may suffer severe brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke. Now doctors say a bystander can recognize a stroke by asking three simple questions: S *Ask the individual to SMILE. T *Ask the person to TALK and SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE (Coherently) (i.e. Chicken Soup) R *Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS. If he or she has trouble with ANY ONE of these tasks, call emergency number immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher. New Sign of a Stroke -------- Stick out Your Tongue NOTE: Another 'sign' of a stroke is this: Ask the person to 'stick' out his tongue. If the tongue is 'crooked', if it goes to one side or the other that is also an indication of a stroke. A cardiologist says if everyone who gets this e-mail sends it to 10 people; you can bet that at least one life will be saved. I have done my part. Will you?

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