How to Spot Suicidal Behavior in Children and Teens

Suicide is on the rise among children and adolescents. Recognizing the early signs is an important step in getting them the help they need.

Childhood and adolescence can come with challenges – the pressure to fit in, find out who you are, bullying and more can be hard for kids and teens to deal with.

It can sometimes start to feel like too much. While anyone can have suicidal thoughts, suicide rates are rising among young people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death among children. 10–14 years and adolescents and young adults 15–19 years old in the USA.

In the world, suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents.

Seeing someone in crisis can be frightening for a parent, caregiver, teacher, or friend. It can seem difficult and scary if you experience it too.

It can be difficult to understand the difference between habitual mood swings and suicidal behavior. What is ordinary sadness and frustration with suicidal feelings or intentions?

As tricky as it may seem, there are several signs that can indicate if your child is at risk and action is needed. Trusted adults, after all, are “the first line of defense,” says Jessica Brazil, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Mindful Living Group.

Even if you are worried about your child, suicide is preventable and help is available.

Although everyone is different, common signs that your child or teen might be thinking about suicide include:

  • withdraw from friends, family and activities
  • noticeable changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • talk about disappearing or dying
  • suggesting that others, such as parents or family, would be better off without them or better off without them
  • express feelings of despair
  • reckless or aggressive behavior
  • dramatic mood swings
  • increased use or abuse of substances

Recognizing troubling behaviors in young children can actually be harder to spot. the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggest keeping an eye out for:

  • frequent temper tantrums
  • complaints of headaches and stomach pains without a medical reason
  • talk often about fears and worries
  • have difficulty at school
  • have frequent nightmares

Keep in mind that some of these may also be symptoms or signs of mental health issues which may or may not be accompanied by suicidal thoughts. In either case, resources are available to help you.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) highlights a distinction between suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviors.

Suicidal behavior is a psychiatric emergency – you will need to take immediate action. Signs include:

  • donate personal effects
  • say goodbye to loved ones
  • buy a gun or put away some pills
  • showing calm after a period of depression
  • make a plan to end one’s life
  • make declarative statements that they will end their lives

If this all sounds familiar, you and your child are not alone. Resources, which we’ll discuss below, can help.

Childhood and adolescence are times of great change.

In addition to the physical and hormonal changes that occur during these years, especially during adolescence, children and adolescents may face issues that can make them more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.

To research suggests that young people may contemplate suicide for the following reasons:

Underlying mental health issues

Results indicate that 9 out of 10 people who died by suicide had an underlying mental health condition.

Some of them include:

Stressful life events and social pressures

Research suggests that LGBTQIA+ people are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people. This risk is even higher in transgender communities — 43% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Bullying can also play a role in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

According to CDCyoung people who report bullying others and Bullied victims have the highest risk of engaging in suicidal behaviors.

We think that 50% of young suicides are due to “family factors”. These include a family member who died by suicide, as well as depression and substance abuse within the family.

Other stressful life events and social pressures can lead to suicidal thoughts, such as:

Intimate relationships can also cause children and teens to think about suicide.

“A breakup, the loss of an important friendship – it can all feel like the death of a teenager or a child,” Brazil says. She also points out that not having access to support can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.

Arrangement

Certain personality traits can increase the risk of having suicidal thoughts and behaviors. These include:

Talking about suicide with your child can feel overwhelming. But bringing the subject out into the open is the key to prevention and treatment.

How to talk with your child or teenager

Approaching your child to a quiet, caring place can encourage him to talk freely.

“The more comfortable an adult or parent talks about suicide, the safer a child or teen will feel,” Brazil says.

She believes parents should seek therapy for themselves to learn how to deal with the subject. This can prevent them from saying something that might alienate their child.

Creating an environment of honesty can also help. “It’s so important to practice open communication about taboo and difficult topics,” Brazil says.

When your child speaks, Brazil suggests:

  • Offer a sympathetic ear.
  • Listen without giving too many comments or providing solutions. It can help your child feel validated, seen, and heard.
  • Refrain from making dismissive or comparative comments, such as “My problems are so much bigger than yours.”
  • Assure your child that no subject is off limits.

Acquire help

Understanding and talking about emotions can be difficult for everyone, but especially for young people. This is why getting help from a mental health professional can be so beneficial.

A professional can also help you develop a safety plan (or crisis plan) to use when your child exhibits immediate suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

You can start by letting your child know that mental health professionals are trained to help people deal with their feelings. They can also help build awareness and resilience.

You might also consider online therapy programs. A number of programs offer immediate and ongoing help. Talkspace, for example, provides unlimited messaging, as well as voice and video support.

If you think your child isn’t quite ready to see a therapist, but would benefit from someone just listening to their concerns, consider referring them to 7 Cups (www.7cups.com) . Although this service cannot provide crisis support, it does provide free emotional support for teens ages 13-17. Run by trained volunteers, it’s a safe space for teens to let off steam.

The youth suicide rate has increased by 56% in the last decade. According to National Public Radio (NPR), the pandemic is making researchers even more concerned about teen suicide.

Social media, bullying, and the time children and teens have spent in isolation in the past year can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

All of this can be scary to think about. But comfort can be found in the resources available.

Suicide is preventable. Suicidal thoughts are a symptom and can be managed.

Learning to spot the signs can help you seek help and put your child on the path to treatment.