Excerpt from the book “Helping Your Depressed Teenager” by Gerald D. Oster, PhD and Sarah S. Montgomery, MSW

Your most vital role and function as parents of at-risk adolescents is to listen supportively. If a teenager appears depressed and exhibits any of the warning signals, take time to listen and show your caring and concern. When you think that a teenager, especially your own, may be suicidal, it is normal to feel anxious and unsure of what to say. You do not have to feel intrusive by simply stating something like, “You don’t seem to be like your usual self.” By being direct and showing some concern, you can ask many questions and may receive straight answers.

A troubled youth needs someone who will listen. It certainly is not easy to discuss suicidal thoughts, but it is critical for teens to talk about why they want to die. Every effort should be made to understand the problems behind the statements, even if their reasoning makes little sense. Although you should show interest, refrain from making moral judgments or trying to talk a youth out of it. The value of listening cannot be overrated.

The following checklist of what to do and what not to do reviews and emphasizes the points made in Part 2: Suicide Intervention and Prevention and makes it easier to talk to a troubled adolescent:

What to Do

  • Trust your own judgment. You must use your own intuition in deciding whether a troubled youth may be self-destructive.
  • Offer help immediately, and there will be no need to feel regret later.
  • Demonstrate your support. Show that you are concerned and that you do not want him or her to do anything that would be harmful.
  • Be open and direct. Be free with your questions. Ask whether active plans have been made. Teenagers who can state how, when, and where they will commit suicide are very serious about carrying out their ideas.
  • Remove all potentially dangerous items, such as weapons, pills, or alcohol, from the home. Many teenagers can be impulsive, without realizing the consequences.
  • Sometimes you will need extra assistance. Seek help. People such as teachers, school counselors, and clergy are easy to contact and can help resolve problems. You may have to insist on the help or to contact the appropriate people yourself.

What Not to Do

  • Do not be sworn to secrecy. Suicidal teenagers need help. Losing friendship or trust temporarily is better than losing a life forever.
  • Never leave a suicidal person alone. If the risk appears great, stay with the person.
  • Do not appear shocked or alarmed by what your teen tells you. You are trying to build a space of confidence and security.
  • Do not try to be a therapist. Just listen to your teens’ concerns without being judgmental.
  • Do not get into a debate over the morals of suicide. You may run the risk of increasing the person’s sense of guilt and feelings of sadness.
  • Do not point out that other people have worse troubles and that your teen should compare themselves to less fortunate. This can make your teen feel even less copetent and understood.

As an active listener, if you feel that your child is in any risk of suicide, contact a mental health professional. Once you have made the contact, the specialist will assess the risk of suicide. It is helpful for parents to be cognizant of the questions and tactics clinicians use to determine risk. Once risk is determined, the clinicians and parents can then make the first steps towards intervention.