Chances are, if you have an adolescent, the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is a hot topic, whether you know It or not. For those of you who are not familiar, the show is constructed around the premise that a high school girl, Hannah Baker, has committed suicide following a school year marked by social aggression, sexual bullying and isolation. She creates 13 tapes that expose the individuals she feels are responsible for her demise.
There are many problems that we, as therapists, have with the premise of the show, which we will discuss in our seminar on June 15th. For now, though, we’d like to use this as an opportunity to address the elephant in the room: How does a parent know if their child is in crisis and how should they approach the monumental task of getting them help?
What to do if you are worried about your child’s well-being:
Trust yourself. If you sense something is going on with your child, it probably is. Find a way to engage with them in a setting that is private and non-threatening. Consider a drive or a walk.
Decide if you are up for the challenge. Is this too scary for you to sit with? If so, who can you engage to do it for you? A family friend? A priest or other church figure? A guidance counselor? Your pediatrician?
Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. No one commits suicide because someone raised the topic.
Believe them if they say they are suicidal or want to hurt themselves. Being willing to talk about these thoughts and feelings help protect people from acting upon them. It does not suggest someone is just trying to get attention or be dramatic.
Start by getting them talking. Ask open ended questions and try not to answer them before your child. Listen, don’t advise. What is on their mind? How do they feel? How do they perceive the situation? If they are reluctant to talk with you, but you feel something is going on, who would they open up to?
Listen for themes of hopelessness or futility: “What’s the point?” or “It will be this way forever.”
Sometimes reflecting about how hard the situation is for the child can be an effective way to ask if they are thinking about suicide. “You know, it wouldn’t be crazy if this felt so hard sometimes that thoughts about not wanting to live or wishing you were dead come to you. Does that ever happen?”
Watch your child during the discussion, as well as listen. Do they seem like they are holding back? Are they hesitating before answering important questions? Do you believe them?
It is very tempting to neutralize the discussion out of fear or anxiety. Try not to lead them to make their story less scary by giving them a pep talk or telling them how “great everything is.” You want to get as accurate an impression as possible.
If they are having thoughts of suicide, what are they thinking? Have they thought of ways to kill themselves? Have they thought of a plan?* Have they started to make arrangements to enact the plan? When they’ve had these thoughts have they ever started to take any steps to kill themselves?
See if your child is able to tell you when the thoughts are strongest. Is it a time of day or after a particular type of stress?
What is your child living for? What keeps them going? Is it a “good reason” or something that isn’t sustaining?
Respond to what your child is offering.
If they are sad, but safe, figure out a plan to help them feel supported. Now is the time to ask them for ideas and come up with suggestions.
If they are having thoughts of suicide, believe them. If they are safe for now, come up with a plan to get them connected with someone who can lower their pain. Call a pediatrician, counselor or get in touch with the school.
If you are not sure your child is safe, do something. Call “211” (infoline) and follow prompts for crisis, call the national suicide prevention hotline or chat: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ , call 911,or go to an emergency room.
*Adolescents are by nature very impulsive. If your child is expressing any ideas about suicide or you even suspect they might, it is a good idea to get rid of anything that can be used impulsively. Knives, pills, poisons and weapons should be removed from the home until your child’s safety is assured. Increase your time and supervision in a non-punitive way and make sure you check in regularly.
13 Survival Skills for Parents of Adolescents June 15, 2017, 6:30-8:00
In response to the current Netflix series on teen suicide and the issues adolescents face, we are offering a discussion to support parents as they guide their children safely through the emotional and social hazards of high school.