How to Help When Adolescents Have Suicidal Thoughts

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | May 14, 2024

The adolescent years are full of milestones and changes, and not all of them are easy. Between navigating school and familial obligations and developing their own identity, teens can easily become overwhelmed. This overwhelm can compound and spiral into more serious concerns, such as depression and suicidal ideation. If you’re concerned about a teen in your life, know that there is hope — here is what you need to know and how you can help.

In This Article

Understanding Suicidal Thoughts in Teens

Suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation are contemplations, wishes or preoccupations about death and ending your life. They may be a sign of temporary stress or the feeling that things are too challenging and you’ve run out of options. They may only last a few seconds or they can be chronic.

Passive suicidal ideation are thoughts about one’s own death without an active plan or even desire to end one’s own life. Passive suicidal ideation may be expressed in phrases like wishing to never wake up, thinking that everything would be better off if they were dead, or simply not wanting to live. These suicidal thoughts can be one of the dangerous ways in which a teen is wishing to avoid unwanted emotions and stress in their current situations. 

Active suicidal ideation are suicidal thoughts with intent and motivation, which includes making plans or engaging in suicide attempts — an act to take your life. These thoughts can appear suddenly or follow a particularly stressful time, often taking over a person’s entire thinking. 

Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among teens. More than 20% of adolescents in the U.S. have seriously considered suicide, and suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between 10 and 14. 

Ways to Help Cope With Suicidal Thoughts as a Teen

If you’re a teen dealing with suicidal thoughts, it can feel overwhelming. It may feel as if you have no other option than to act on these feelings, or there’s nothing you can do to escape them. While your feelings are very real, it’s important to ask for help and know that these feelings can pass. In addition to asking for help from a trusted adult or friend, there are things you can try that may help you feel better in the present moment. 

Here are tips for coping with suicidal feelings if they arise: 

Don’t Make a Decision Today

Don’t Make a Decision Today

Know that you do not need to act on your thoughts right now. Focus on getting through the present moment or today, not the rest of your life. While you may have had these thoughts before but feel less able to cope right now, you might discover that you can cope better in a few days. 

Go to a Safe Place

When you’re dealing with suicidal thoughts, go to a place where you feel safe, such as:

  • Your bedroom.
  • A friend or family member’s house.
  • A mental health center.
  • A crisis center.
  • The library.
  • A peer support group.
  • A religious or spiritual center. 

Stay away from things you could use to harm yourself. If you have a lot of medication, you might ask someone to keep it safe for you. 

Talk to Someone

It can be challenging knowing how to deal with suicidal thoughts as a teenager, especially when you feel like you have no one to turn to. If you are unable to think of solutions other than suicide, it’s not that solutions do not exist, but rather that you currently are unable to see them. 

The intense emotional pain you’re feeling can distort your thinking, making it difficult to see potential solutions to problems or connect with those who can offer support. Therapists, friends, counselors or loved ones can help you see solutions that otherwise might not be evident to you. If you don’t want to talk to someone you know, text or call an emotional support line or online support group.

You might find it hard to articulate your feelings or even speak in the present moment, and know that this is OK. Just being around others can help you feel safe and secure, even if they don’t know what you’re going through. 

Ground Yourself

Suicidal thoughts happen when a person is caught up in their “what ifs” and catastrophic thinking. Suicidal thoughts can also happen when a person is caught up in really intense unwanted emotions. Grounding exercises can be especially helpful when you feel worried, panicked or overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings. Grounding techniques can help you come back to the present moment and calm your nervous system. The following techniques engages the five senses, which can help you be in the moment and not focus so much on your thoughts: 

  • Look at something: Look at something beautiful or comforting when you’re feeling panicked. This might be a meaningful photograph, a piece of art or a nice scenic view. 
  • Listen to something: Listen to something soothing, whether it’s a favorite song or the sound of nature. You might even sing.
  • Smell something: Notice the smells around you or smell a favorite scent like a soap, candle or type of food.
  • Taste something: Find something to taste and savor it slowly and mindfully. Notice the flavors, how they feel on your tongue and the thoughts you might have about it. 
  • Touch something: Touch something comforting, like a soft blanket or a pet. Note the textures on your skin and how they make you feel.

You might also say out loud or think about the following things in your vicinity: 

Ground Yourself
  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste 

Distract Yourself

Focusing on suicidal thoughts can give them strength and make them more challenging to cope with. Instead, try distracting yourself with a favorite activity or one of the following examples: 

  • Read a book 
  • Draw or paint
  • Play a musical instrument
  • Watch a movie or TV
  • Go to a museum
  • Listen to music
  • Do some gardening
  • Exercise
  • Play a game you enjoy
  • Spend time with your pet.
Distract Yourself

You might also set a small goal to focus on, such as doing laundry, making a cake or organizing something in your house.

Long-Term Strategies for Managing Suicidal Thoughts 

If you have experienced suicidal feelings in the past, you may worry they’ll return. Or if you’re feeling low now, you might be anxious the feelings will worsen. However, there are many steps you can take to look after your mental health and improve your general well-being when feeling low. You might also do things to prepare yourself in case you feel suicidal again. 

Long-term strategies for managing suicidal thoughts include: 

Be Aware of Your Triggers

Triggers are the places, things or people that might worsen your suicidal thoughts or feelings, and they can be different for different people. For instance, you might find that a specific song, movie or place makes you feel worse. Try to stay away from these things to reduce the harmful feelings they bring up.

To become more aware of your triggers, it helps to practice mindfulness. Write down negative feelings as they arise, and if anything in your vicinity might have caused the emotion or thought. Identifying your triggers can help you become more in control of your feelings or stress levels. You might also share triggers with friends or family members so they can help you avoid them.

Exercise

While exercise can be a healthy distraction in the short term, it can also help manage suicidal ideation in the long run. That’s because exercise has a positive impact on mood and well-being, making our bodies release feel-good chemicals or endorphins.

By exercising more, you can increase these feel-good chemicals and help combat long-term depression, stress and anxiety that might lead to suicidal thoughts. 

Write Down Things You Are Grateful For

While it can be hard to think of positive things when you’re feeling suicidal, making a list of the things you’re grateful for can be a healthy coping skill to manage long-term depression and suicidal thoughts. Think about your strengths and positive attributes people have ascribed to you. Write down things you are grateful for, whether it’s a nice comfy bed, a close friend or a beloved pet.

If there’s a negative situation you can’t stop thinking about, write it down and then think of two positives that have come from it. The negative situation might be feeling suicidal, and the two positives might be knowing that you have someone to reach out to or knowing others who have survived and that it is possible to overcome these feelings.

How Caregivers and Family Members Can Provide Support 

If you think your child is in immediate danger of suicide, call for emergency help or take them to a hospital emergency department. Suicidal thoughts can be a sign of stress or a sign of suicidal intent. You can also help your teen build resilience and coping skills to get through suicidal thoughts. 

Here are a few ways to help teens overcome suicidal thoughts:

Recognize Warning Signs

Recognizing early warning signs of suicidal thoughts can help you support your teen during tough times and seek professional treatment to prevent suicide. While not everyone will show the same signs if they’re thinking about suicide, the following behaviors and feelings are cause for concern:

  • Seeming preoccupied with death or dying
  • Having trouble eating or sleeping
  • Displaying sudden or dramatic changes in mood or behavior
  • Isolating from friends or social activities
  • Loss of interest in school, work or hobbies
  • Preparing for death by writing a will or making final arrangements
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • Talking about having great guilt or shame or feeling like a burden to others
  • Increases in drug or alcohol use

Your teen may be at a higher risk of suicide if they have attempted suicide before, have experienced recent serious losses or trauma or have a mood disorder like depression. 

Understand Atypical vs. Typical Teen Behaviors

When navigating adolescence, it’s important to know the difference between typical and atypical teen behavior to determine if your teen needs professional support. Many teens deal with mood swings and have a desire for privacy as they get older. However, sudden and dramatic changes in mood, a noticeable drop in academic performance, and complete withdrawal from friends and favorite activities can signify trouble. 

Additionally, persistent sadness, frequent anger outbursts and changes in sleeping habits could signify mental health conditions like depression or anxiety as opposed to typical growing pains.

Start a Dialogue

Noticing changes in your teen can be unsettling, but you can be proactive by starting a dialogue. If you’re worried they may have suicidal thoughts, ask them if they are thinking about hurting themselves. Despite popular belief, being direct and asking openly about suicide will not cause harm and often makes it easier for your teen to confide in you. Here’s how to start a dialogue about suicidal thoughts:

  • Express your concerns during your discussion and show unconditional love and support. 
  • Listen without judgment and let them know you understand how they are feeling and they are not alone. 
  • If they do confide in you, you might thank them for opening up and ask how they’d like you to support them. 
  • Avoid giving advice unprompted, as well as saying anything patronizing or opinionated, as this can shut down communication and prevent your child from wanting to seek help. 

If your teen says they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, don’t downplay the situation. Ask how you can help, express your concern and seek professional help. 

Foster Collaboration and Resilience

Let your teen know you will be there for them and that their situation will improve. If they’ve been through tough times in the past, validate their concerns while reminding them how they’ve used their strengths to conquer challenges. Promote a collaborative environment where they feel encouraged to overcome challenges with mental health and thoughts of suicide together.

Help With Problem-Solving

Children and teens can have suicidal thoughts when overwhelmed by stress. They may have trouble regulating their emotions and coping with challenges. Even if tough situations or stress do not directly lead to suicidal feelings, stress can certainly make things worse. 

Help them problem-solve by saying something like, “Sometimes people think about hurting themselves when undergoing stress or trying to solve a problem. I’m here for you and want to help you work through this. Is there something stressing you out that you are trying to work through?”

If your teen is unsure about what’s bothering them, you might ask about the typical stressors like school and homework, friendships, peer pressure, bullying, identity crises or relationships. 

Promote Social Connectivity

When your teen is struggling, identify ways to connect as a family. Spend quality time together doing activities your teen loves most and provide opportunities for them to connect with peers and other adult caregivers. Social connections can help teens overcome feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, offering them a sense of belonging and importance.

Seek Professional Support

Many treatment options can help people contemplating taking their own life. Even if the underlying problem isn’t a mental illness, professionals can provide coping techniques and emotional support to help your teen. 

Therapy and treatment options offered at Hillside® include:

  • Day treatment: Experience DBT is a 30-day intensive treatment program for teens 13 to 17. We use dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and social-emotional ethical learning (SEE Learning) to help clients learn and apply skills to understand emotions, manage harmful feelings and show empathy for others and themselves. The program can also help your teen maintain relationships with family. 
  • Virtual intensive outpatient therapy (VIOP): VIOP is a six-week online intensive outpatient therapy for teens. The program addresses the underlying causes and symptoms that might be interfering with home, school and interpersonal relationships. 
  • Intensive in-home therapy: The primary focus of in-home therapy is to provide treatment and support for children and families experiencing a mental health diagnosis. Our in-home therapy can prevent the need to leave home for hospitalization or residential treatment, addressing your teen’s mental health needs where they are most comfortable. 

Understand Preventive Measures and Protective Factors

It can be helpful to note the things that can help prevent teen suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, including:

  • Having a strong attachments to parents, friends and family.
  • Feeling loved and accepted, no matter what.
  • Being able to discuss feelings and have people listen without judgment.
  • Having hobbies and meaningful activities that provide purpose, such as attending school or volunteering.
  • Having future goals or a sense of hope that they can get better in tough times.
  • Knowing how to cope with suicidal thoughts and build resilience.

Supporting someone who is feeling suicidal can feel like an immense responsibility. As a parent, you may feel like you’re living in constant fear. This can be exhausting and impact your mental health. While caring for your teen is critical, caring for yourself is also extremely important. This might include:

  • Speaking to a mental health professional.
  • Seeking help from a social support group.
  • Reaching out to trusted friends and family.
  • Caring for your body with exercise and eating nutritious foods.
  • Participating in favorite activities.
  • Getting plenty of rest.

Know that some situations can be tough to manage at home. If you feel like your teen needs constant supervision, they may benefit from a hospital or residential treatment to get the right help and support from professionals. 

Finding Hope and Healing With Hillside®

Finding Hope and Healing With Hillside®

Helping a teen with suicidal thoughts can be challenging and heartbreaking, but you don’t have to navigate this time alone. At Hillside®, we offer various treatment programs for adolescents facing suicidal thoughts, depression and other mental health conditions. We can support you during this time by providing therapy at our treatment center or coming to your home. 

Therapy can help your teen learn healthy coping skills, build resilience and foster a positive outlook on life to combat suicidal thoughts. To learn more about our services or arrange treatment for your teen, contact us today. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.

Author

  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 14, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
May 14, 2024
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke