Minimize conflict

So choose your battles wisely with your kid. It’s part of normal development for adolescents to rebel, and you need to pick what you’re going to set limits about, and the rest of the time you want to focus on the positive connections. It also helps to try to increase your child’s involvement in positive experiences. Kids who are involved in a lot of engaging or fun activities tend to fare better. Your goal as a parent is to reassure struggling kids that they won’t feel like this forever, and you can help do this by promoting positive experiences. When kids feel suicidal it’s often because they feel hopeless and can’t imagine things being better.

Stay in touch

It’s also really important to monitor your child’s whereabouts when they aren’t with you, whether online or out of the house. You can’t stop your kids from texting and Facebooking and using Twitter. That’s normal social interaction at this point. So you need to get on Facebook yourself, learn how to tweet, learn how to text. And use those channels to stay on top of what your kids are doing.

Know your child’s friends

In the “real” world, it’s also critical to know your child’s friends—to have a good sense of who they are and to have a connection with them. Sometimes it’s harder the older your kids get, but it’s really important you do that. You should know the parents of their friends and be in touch with them, too. And you want to communicate regularly with your child’s school to ensure her safety and care in the school setting. Don’t hesitate to use the school and the people in the school as partners in your child’s care when you have concerns.

Talk openly

But again, the crucial first step: If you think your child might be suicidal, talk with him about it, ask him about suicidal thoughts. Sometimes people are afraid that if they talk about it it will make suicidal thoughts more real, and suicide more likely to happen. But the truth is that if a child feels that he has someone safe in the family that he can talk to, he feels better. He feels more understood. He feels like there’s more empathy for him. And that gives you an opening to explain the value of psychotherapy, and possibly medication for the feelings that are causing him so much pain.

Find a clinician who’s a good match

To get a referral to a mental health professional, you can consult your child’s doctor or a psychologist at his school. I recommend that you look for a mental health professional who has experience with suicidal teenagers. Not everybody is comfortable with, or has experience with kids who are suicidal. And when you’re interviewing people, it’s important to pick somebody you—and your child—feel comfortable with. So if your son says, “I just can’t connect with him; I don’t feel comfortable with him,” you want to take that seriously. Of course, if he does that with the second person and then the third person, at some point you may need to say, “Well, of these three people, who did you feel best with?”

Participate in therapy

And once you’ve found a clinician, participate actively in therapy with your child. You need to be a partner in your child’s therapy. The more the child feels like you really care, the better. And that’s not just one parent. When somebody in the family is suicidal it’s a family affair, and everybody needs to help out and be engaged.

There are several kinds of therapy that have been shown in research trials to be particularly useful for suicidal kids. One is cognitive behavioral therapy, and that helps change kids’ thoughts, which in turn changes their feelings and their actions. And dialectical behavior therapy is another approach. It’s a more mindfulness-based approach, and we know that that’s helpful for particular types of suicidal kids, particularly those who have what’s called borderline personality disorder, and lots of suicidal thoughts. And, finally, some kids, particularly those who are seriously depressed or anxious or have ADHD, may benefit from medication in combination with psychotherapy.

Take emergency measures

Of course, if you’re worried that if you don’t do something right now your child will attempt suicide, you need to call 911, or COPES (918.744.4800), or take your child to the hospital. Suicidal thoughts or behaviors are an emergency and must be considered as such.

For more information and resources on suicide see the APA’s suicide help page.