No one tells you what to say when your child says she wants to die
“Mom, can I talk to you privately?” my 13-year-old daughter asked as we sat at the table having a snack.
I didn’t think much of the request at the time as my daughter frequently requests a private chat. Most of the time she just wants some one-on-one time. So I told her I’d meet her in her room in a few minutes.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Sometimes I think about death,” she replied in a flat but hurried tone, as if she rehearsed it many times. “My counselor at school thought I should tell you.”
“What do you mean you think about death?” I asked, even though I wanted to just assume she was talking about death in general. We had just watched her grandmother die a few months before, and she could’ve simply been grieving. But since I struggled with suicidal thoughts as a teen, I knew it could be something requiring a lot more attention and help.
“I mean, sometimes I want to die. Like, I think of myself as dead and I feel relief.”
I struggled not to overreact, but also not to brush it off. The first time I told my mom I had thoughts of suicide I was only a couple years older than her. I remember the courage it took for me to actually say the words.
I also remember how my mom proceeded to betray my trust. Or at least that’s how I felt at the time. She whisked me off to the emergency room explaining that the doctors would just talk to me. I trusted that I’d be going home afterward, that it was safe to tell them everything.
I told them I had a plan to kill myself and they locked me away. I hated her for it. I think I actually screamed at her that I hated her as she left me there. It took me a really long time to be honest with her after that.
“I understand; I’ve felt that way too,” I told my daughter as she sat chewing her nails down to nubs. I knew she probably wouldn’t believe me, but in that moment I saw myself in her more than I ever had. For the first time, I wished my daughter wasn’t like me.
“Yeah,” was all she said in response.
We sat in a near unbearable silence for a few moments as I realized that her life was in my hands. Sure I always knew my daughter was my responsibility, but I never felt it like I did in that moment. Even when she was a helpless infant. Maybe it was because now I had very little control. I was responsible for her, but she was the one who ultimately had control over the outcome.
According to the Jason Foundation, a foundation aiming to prevent youth suicide, 5,400 suicide attempts are committed by seventh through twelfth graders every year in the United States, and approximately 80 percent of those have given clear warning signs before their attempt. That’s a lot of teens who have indicated they need help and a lot of parents trying to figure out the best way to give it, just as I was that day in my daughter's room.
As we sat in silence, I remembered all the times I was admitted to the hospital as a teen. They always asked the same questions to gauge how serious your threats of suicide were. “Have you thought about killing yourself?” “Have you made a plan?” “Have you gathered the necessary items to carry the plan out?” I thought about taking her to the ER and letting them evaluate her.
But then I remembered who she was. She would never answer those questions honestly to a stranger. She has always been very shy and reserved. I knew that I had to ask her. She came to me because she was ready to talk to me about it. She trusted me.
“So, are you thinking about killing yourself?” I asked.
“Sometimes people think about suicide when they are depressed and have no intent on actually doing it, and other times they really want to kill themselves. Which do you think is true for you?”
Her answer to this question would determine what I would do next. Would I whisk her away to the hospital? Or would I have to find her a therapist? Either way, at this point action was necessary.
“I don’t think I could actually kill myself. I just think about it sometimes,” she told me as she started to tear up. I hugged her and told her we’d get through it together.
“So, do you want to go to therapy?” I asked. I wanted to give her a choice in how to proceed. I wanted her to feel like she had some control in her recovery. As a teen, I had felt I had no control in mine, and as a result I made little progress. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I took control and actually started to use all the resources I felt were forced on me in my teens.
“Maybe. But not now. I kinda just want to talk to you and my counselor at school about this.”
“Ok. But I need you to know that sometimes the feelings you’re having don’t go away without medication. If you still feel this way in a few months, or if it gets worse, you might have to see a doctor.” Although I wanted her to have some control in her recovery, I knew she still needed her mom to be her safety net.
Although this approach won't work for every kid — some definitely need forced intervention — it's worked for her. She’s taken charge — even asked to start therapy recently — and I am just waiting to catch her if she starts to fall.
If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).