Dealing with a child’s suicide attempt is a profoundly sensitive and distressing experience. Parents often feel lost and alone. Just like their child, parents and families need support.
“For parents, a child’s suicide attempt is a time of fear and confusion. It can be terrifying,” says Joanna Quiqley, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor and Associate Medical Director, Child and Adolescent Services at University of Michigan Medicine. “Most parents didn’t see it coming and they feel blindsided. They may feel inadequate as parents. Plus, there is still a lot of shame around dealing with significant mental health concerns.”
Emotional needs of parents and families
Following a child’s suicide attempt, parents also need to recover from the shock and fear brought about by the event.
“Giving parents space to acknowledge their feelings is important,” says Dr. Quigley. “It’s crucial that parents find their own mental health resources to process what they are going through if they are not already engaged in their own therapy or mental health care.”
Parents overwhelmed by the task of helping their struggling child may be tempted to ignore their own needs. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire, says Dr. Quigley. “As a parent, you want to have as much bandwidth as possible available to your child during these periods of crisis. If you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s really hard to have that.”
One way for parents to combat their feelings of helplessness is to get information from mental health and medical experts. For example, an assessment or hospitalization usually follows a suicide attempt. Dr. Quigley suggests using your time in a clinical setting to ask detailed questions.
“Most hospital stays include a meeting with specialty care and other medical providers. This is an excellent time to voice your questions and concerns,” she says. “The more knowledge you get from the experts on this issue, the more confident you will feel.”
Support for parents, family and friends
While family members and friends will want to reach out and support the parents of a child who has made a suicide attempt, they may have their own feelings of fear and guilt. Dr. Quigley says open communication will help.
“It may be difficult to share your pain with friends and family. However, when feelings aren’t shared, they gain even more toxic power. If you can find a way to share with trusted family and friends, there can be incredible relief in that,” says Dr. Quigley.
If parents feel unable to open up about their pain to loved ones, Dr. Quigley recommends getting involved with support organizations. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Michigan offers parents online resources as well as local support groups with parents who have gone through the same situations.
The role of mental health professionals
The aftermath of a child’s suicide attempt also requires ample support from the child’s mental health caregivers, Dr. Quigley says.
“We can help give parents the language to talk to their child so that they can see the warning signs of distress. For example, we can coach parents on helping establish emotional check-ins with their child, secure any medications or harmful substances and help them create ‘proxy’ words to talk about difficult emotions.”
Proxy words give children a less charged way to talk about their feelings, says Dr. Quigley. “For example, feeling really bad could be ‘feeling red.’ It’s a way for the parents to know if their child is in the danger zone.”
Mental health providers can also coach parents on who the child’s go-to person should be if they feel like they are in immediate danger of self-harm. Many kids will want a friend to be the person they call, but Dr. Quigley says that’s a mistake.
“Explain to your child that it’s too much for their friend to have that kind of responsibility and that you need to identify a trusted adult,” she says. Grandparents, aunts or uncles can all be great “go-to” helpers for a child in distress.
Resources for suicide prevention and support
Text 988 on your phone to connect to a mental health professional or go to the website at 988lifeline.org/chat. 988 Lifeline Chat and Text is part of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
National Alliance on Mental Illness Michigan: namimi.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org
Phone: If you are in crisis, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting 741-741.
The Trevor Project: thetrevorproject.org– Help for LGBTQ youth and their families
Phone: If you are in crisis, call their hotline: 866-488-7386.
Dr. Quigley urges families to use the resources available and ask your child’s medical team if you need more support. “Don’t give up. Keep asking until you get the help you need.”