Hearing your child wants to harm herself is one of the hardest things I've ever experienced in all my years of parenting. What do you say? What do you do? How do you best approach this? How do you help your precious child?
Sadly, I recently had to quickly figure this all out when we found a note from our 12-year-old as we headed to bed that said she was having thoughts of harming herself and even dying. I wracked my brain trying to remember if I'd ever read anything that gave tips on how to deal with this, and wished I had read something that stuck with me so I had the tools I needed at the moment I needed them.
I had nothing.
So I headed into her room unprepared. After talking and praying with her I went to bed with a tight knot in my chest. After that, I decided to write an article on the issue that might help parents and caregivers who find themselves in a similar situation.
First of all, I want to share this very important number: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours and all calls are free and confidential. Please call (800) 273-TALK (8255) whenever you feel the need.
Tips from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
- Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
- Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
- Be non-judgemental. Don't debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don't lecture on the value of life.
- Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
- Don't act shocked. This will put distance between you.
- Seek support.
- Offer hope that alternatives are available, but do not offer glib reassurance.
- Take action. Remove means, like weapons or pills.
- Get help from people or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
Important tips I used and have learned:
- Listen: Even when they are not talking. Pay attention to what's going on in their lives. Friend or boyfriend issues, bullying, peer pressure, major loss, substance abuse, etc.
- Don't ignore threats of suicide. All threats — written or verbal — should be treated seriously. This is not the time you want to risk being wrong.
- Share your feelings. We all feel sad at times or even get depressed or anxious. Help them understand that these things do get better and that you will help them get through it.
- Don't wait for kids to come to you with their problems. If you notice something seems off or wrong, step in and start a conversation. "You seem sad. Would you like to talk about it? Maybe I can help."
- Encourage exercise. Even a simple walk can help with mild to moderate depression. Working out causes a gland in the brain to release endorphins, a substance believed to improve mood and ease pain. Endorphins also lower the amount of cortisol in circulation. Cortisol is a hormone that has been linked to depression.
- Remove all guns from the home or store them safely if you believe your child is considering harming themselves or is suicidal.
- Seek professional help. Personally, I skipped the pediatrician and reached out to the mental health department of our medical provider. They can perform an evaluation and offer therapy or counseling.
- Go to the local emergency room if you feel your child is actively suicidal and in danger of self-harm.
What did I do? I headed into her bedroom and thanked her for leaving us the note so we could help her. I also asked her how I could help her and how she was feeling. She admitted to feeling very sad inside, but really had no reason she could pinpoint. I let her guide the conversation as we talked about suicide and the finality of it all and the people she would be leaving behind. We talked about things she could do when she was feeling sad such as drawing, coloring, reading a book or the Bible, listen to uplifting music, and asking to talk to someone.
Thankfully, she woke up feeling much better the next day, but I still reached out to the mental health department through our doctor's office and she now has a therapist to talk to and learn from, as well as a weekly group program led by her therapist with other kids her age on how to handle moods and other tween/teen situations.
If you need to find mental health help for your child or family, please don't hesitate to reach out immediately to professionals. Your child and family are too important to wait.
The author has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her daughter's identity.