What to Say to a Suicidal Teen

How to Talk to a Teen Threatening Suicide

Take any threats of suicide very serious.

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Hearing a teen say things like, "I should just go kill myself," should be cause for alarm. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers. 

If your teen brings up the subject—even if you think it's a bid for attention—address it right away. Unfortunately, many teens complete suicide every year and often their stunned friends and family say they never imagined their loved one would do it.

Teen Suicide Facts

If your teen is talking about or threatening to commit suicide, there are some things you should understand. There is a part of your teen that doesn't really want to die. Teens contemplating suicide likely feel utterly hopeless, out of control, and unable to cope. The pain they are experiencing is intense and substantial, and in this moment suicide seems the only way out.

Suicidal teens are looking for a way to stop their emotional pain. They are tired of hurting and tired of feeling like no one understands what they are going through.

Warning Signs

Some of the potential warning signs that a teen may be suicidal include talking about or threatening suicide. Mood swings, changes in routine, withdrawal from friends and family, risky or self-destructive behaviors, and giving away possessions are also signs that a child may be thinking about or at risk of suicide.

What to Say to a Suicidal Teen

If you suspect that your teen is considering suicide, talk about it immediately. Take it seriously and don't dismiss it as acting out, a bid for attention, or teenage drama. Contrary to popular belief, talking about suicide doesn't plant suicidal ideas in their heads. In fact, addressing the topic head-on can do the very opposite by helping your teen to know what to do if they have suicidal thoughts or behaviors. It can help them identify a problem and know how to ask for help.

If your teen mentions wanting to die or wishing they were dead, encourage them to talk to you about their distress.

These strategies can help your teen start talking:

  • Encourage your teen to describe what they're feeling. Say something like, "I had no idea things were so bad for you, talk to me about what's going on."
  • Ask your teen to share whether a specific incident led to suicidal thoughts. Ask a question such as, "What happened? I want to know more, it might help to talk about it."
  • Don't invalidate your teen's feelings. Avoid saying things that may be perceived as empty or unhelpful such as, "You should appreciate all you have in life," or "I think you're overreacting." Those reactions downplay your teen's pain.
  • Show acceptance. Listen without verbalizing judgment or disagreeing with their statements or feelings.

Ask if your teen has a specific plan for suicide. The more specific the plan, the higher the risk. 

After gaining a better understanding, it's important to offer your teen emotional support. Use the suggestions that best fit you, your teen and the situation:

  • Let your teen know you understand that they feel miserable. Say something like, "It sounds like you've given up" or "I think you feel there's no way out."
  • Remind your teen of your unconditional love.
  • Let your teen know you are deeply concerned about their well-being.
  • As compassionately as possible say to your teen, "I do not want you to hurt yourself and I will do everything possible to keep you from committing suicide."
  • Gently point out that suicide is not a solution. Try saying something such as, "I know there are options that could help, I'd like you to at least try them."
  • Promise to be there for your teen and to do whatever it takes to get them through this. Provide reassurance by saying something like, "You are not alone. I am here to help you now that I understand how bad things really are for you."

Make Safety the Top Priority

A teen who is talking about suicide could be in immediate danger to themself. Take your teen's comments seriously. There are a few things you can do to make safety a top priority.

First, remove all dangerous implements or substances from the immediate area. Stay with your teen—make sure your child is not left alone during this crisis.

Get your teen immediate professional help. Call 911 or take your teen to an emergency room if you believe that your child is in imminent danger.

Once the immediate danger has been addressed, get ongoing help for your child. Therapy can treat and address underlying mental health issues and is crucial to alleviating your teen's distress.

Factors that can increase the risk of teen suicide include having a psychiatric condition (such as depression or anxiety), bullying issues, interpersonal issues, and substance use. Getting your teen help with such issues is an important part of suicide prevention.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for more resources and to find treatment services in your area.

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