Suicide is on the rise in children and teens. Recognizing early signs is an important step to get them the help they need.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Childhood and adolescence can carry challenges — the pressure to fit in, figuring out who you are, bullying, and more can all be hard for kids and teens to manage.

It can sometimes start to feel like too much. While anyone can experience thoughts of suicide, suicide rates are rising in younger people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death in both children ages 10–14 and teenagers and young adults ages 15–19 in the United States.

Worldwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents.

Seeing someone in crisis can be frightening for a parent, caregiver, teacher, or friend. It can feel hard and scary if you’re the one experiencing it, too.

Figuring out the difference between routine changes in mood and suicidal behavior can be tough. What’s ordinary sadness and frustration versus suicidal feelings or intent?

As tricky as it seems, several signs can point to if your child is at risk and action is needed. Trusted adults, after all, are “the first line of defense,” says Jessica Brazil, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Mindful Living Group.

While you may be worried about your child, suicide can be prevented and help is available.

While everyone is different, common signs that your child or teen may be thinking about suicide include:

  • withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • noticeable changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • speaking about disappearing or dying
  • suggesting that others, such as parents or family, would better off without them or better off if they weren’t there
  • expressing feelings of hopelessness
  • reckless or aggressive behavior
  • dramatic changes in mood
  • increased use or misuse of substances

Noticing troubling behaviors in younger children can actually be harder to spot. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests keeping an eye out for:

  • frequent tantrums
  • complaints about headaches and stomachaches with no medical reason
  • talking often about fears and worries
  • having difficulties at school
  • experiencing frequent nightmares

Keep in mind that some of these can also be symptoms or signs of mental health conditions that may or may not be accompanied by suicidal thoughts. Either way, resources are available to help.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) highlights a distinction between suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior.

Suicidal behavior is a psychiatric emergency — you’ll need to take immediate action. Signs include:

  • giving away personal belongings
  • wishing loved ones goodbye
  • purchasing a weapon or stashing away pills
  • showing calmness after a period of depression
  • making a plan to end their life
  • making declarative statements that they’ll end their life

If any of this sounds familiar, you and your child aren’t alone. Resources, which we’ll go into below, can help.

Childhood and adolescence are periods of major change.

On top of the physical and hormonal shifts that occur during these years — particularly during adolescence — children and teens may face issues that can make them more vulnerable to thoughts about suicide.

Research suggests that younger people may consider suicide for the following reasons:

Underlying mental health conditions

Findings indicate that 9 out of 10 people who died by suicide had an underlying mental health condition.

Some of these include:

Stressful life events and social pressures

Research suggests that LGBTQIA+ folks are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual individuals. That risk is even higher in transgender communities — 43% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Bullying may also play a role in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

According to the CDC, young people who report bullying others and being bullied have the highest risk of having suicidal behaviors.

It’s estimated that 50% of youth suicides are due to “family factors.” These include a family member who has died by suicide, as well as depression and substance misuse within the family.

Other stressful life events and social pressures may lead to suicidal thoughts, like:

Intimate relationships can also cause children and teens to think about suicide.

“A breakup, the loss of a significant friendship — all can feel like a death for a teen or child,” says Brazil. She also points out that not having access to support can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.

Disposition

Some personality traits may raise someone’s risk of having suicidal thoughts and behaviors. These include:

Talking about suicide with your child may feel overwhelming. But bringing the topic into the open is key to prevention and treatment.

How to talk with your child or teen

Approaching your child from a calm, sympathetic place may encourage them to speak freely.

“The more comfortable an adult or parent is talking about suicide, the safer a child or teen will feel,” Brazil says.

She believes that parents should seek therapy for themselves to learn how to deal with the topic. This can help prevent them from saying something that could push their child further away.

Creating an environment of honesty can also help. “It’s so important to practice open communication about taboo and challenging topics,” Brazil says.

When your child talks, Brazil suggests:

  • Offering a compassionate ear.
  • Listening without giving too much input or providing solutions. This can help make your child feel validated, seen, and heard.
  • Refraining from making dismissive or comparative comments, such as “My problems are so much bigger than yours.”
  • Assuring your child that no topic is off-limits.

Getting help

Understanding and talking about emotions may be difficult for anyone, but especially younger people. That’s why getting help from a mental health professional can be so beneficial.

A professional can also help you develop a safety plan (aka crisis plan) to use when your child shows immediate suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

You can start by letting your child know that mental health pros are trained to help people navigate their feelings. They can also help build awareness and resilience.

You might also want to consider online therapy programs. A number of programs offer both immediate and ongoing help. Talkspace, for example, provides unlimited messaging, as well as voice and video support.

If you think your kid isn’t quite ready to see a therapist but would benefit from someone just listening to their concerns, consider directing them to 7 Cups (www.7cups.com). Though this service can’t provide support in a crisis, they offer free emotional support for teens 13–17 years old. Run by trained volunteers, it’s a safe space for adolescents to vent.

Suicide rates in young people have climbed by 56% in the last decade. According to National Public Radio (NPR), the pandemic has researchers growing even more concerned about teen suicide.

Social media, bullying, and the amount of time children and teens have spent in isolation in the past year may raise risks of suicidal thoughts and behavior.

All of this can be frightening to think about. But comfort can be found in resources available.

Suicide is preventable. Thoughts of suicide are a symptom and can be managed.

Learning to spot the signs can empower you to seek help and put your child on the path to treatment.