Suicide Risk: A Tool for Parents

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How do you talk to your kids about suicide? If you are like many others, you may feel not prepared to have this conversation with your child. Suicide can be a scary topic to discuss with the ones you love and an even scarier topic for those wanting to kill or hurt themselves. It is important to take suicidal ideation seriously and have the skills to help your children during this difficult time. In order to better prepare you to address suicide risk with your child, this article will provide information on the warning signs of suicide risk, strategies on how to approach suicide with your child and additional resources to ensure you have the tools to successfully connect your child to supports.

Warning Signs of Suicide Risk:

Often, a person struggling with suicidal behavior will communicate or show specific signs that increase their risk of suicide (American Association of Suicidology, 2016). Below is a compiled list of potential warning signs. It is important to note that you are determining if the warning signs are currently present. Another easy way to remember the warning signs of suicide is to remember the mnemonic IS PATH WARM (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).

  • I (Ideation): Suicidal ideation, making plans and preparations (saying goodbye or giving away possessions), or history of prior attempts. Threatening to hurt or kill themselves or talking about wanting to hurt or kill themselves. Looking for ways to kill themselves by seeking access to firearms, available pills or other means. Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary.
  • S (Substance Use/Abuse): Increased or excessive substance use
  • P (Purposelessness): or no reason for living
  • A (Anxiety): Heightened anxiety or agitation
  • T (Trapped): or feeling like there is no way out, resistance to help
  • H (Hopelessness)
  • W (Withdrawing): from friends, family, and society
  • A (Anger): Uncontrolled anger or rage, seeking revenge
  • R (Recklessness): engaging in risky activities
  • M (Mood Change): Dramatic mood changes

Additional warning signs may include:

  • Exposure of suicide- influence of media or others, a recent death of someone known to the person
  • Decreased interest in once pleasurable activities
  • Relationships- conflict or ending of a relationship
  • Feeling of being a burden
  • Increased isolation
  • Past or current history of trauma
  • Stressful life events
  • Experience of humiliation or shame
  • Bullying
  • Changes in school performance

If you are unsure, a licensed mental health professional can help assess.

Strategies on How to Approach Suicide with Your Child:

As mentioned above, suicide is a frightening topic and can be scary to talk about. It is important to let your child know that they can talk with you about what they are going through. By effectively communicating with your child you will be more prepared to create a sense of safety and trust that can lead to working together to manage pain (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).

Below is a list of potential strategies on how to approach suicide with your child. 

  • Be direct and don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Have you had any thoughts of wanting to kill yourself?” or “Do you have a plan of how you would kill yourself?” (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).
  • Do not accept the first “no”; ask again (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).
  • Notice hesitancy and body language. Acknowledge the discomfort that comes from talking about suicide while opening the door to talk about suicide (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).
  • Appear unhurried and comfortable talking about suicide (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).  If you are nervous, try not to fidget or pace. Your child could begin to mirror your feelings of being scared or nervous.
  • Normalization- this is a gentle approach to lead into a discussion about suicide. You may say, “Sometimes, when people feel this bad it’s not unusual for them to think, ‘you know, I’d rather be dead than to have to deal with this’. Have you had thoughts like this?” (American Association of Suicidology, 2016).
  • Shame attenuation- your child may be experiencing shame and guilt attached to their suicidal ideation (American Association of Suicidology, 2016). Try not to have an accusatory tone when talking about suicide.
  • Have an open and compassionate mindset (NAMI, n.d.).
  • Do not argue with their feelings, summarize their thoughts and help them to feel heard and validated (NAMI, n.d.).
  • Talk to your child one on one; or if you are in a group setting, have one person talk at a time (NAMI, n.d.).
  • Remove any items that can be used as a weapon (NAMI, n.d.). Many mobile crisis units have free or low-cost safety boxes that they can provide to families. For more information, please contact your local crisis response unit or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Some next step strategies for if your child communicates that they have a plan to kill themselves, may include:
    • If items or locations are easily accessible- remove the risk by locking up the item and provide constant supervision until you meet with a licensed mental health professional. The licensed mental health professional will then provide you with additional guidance and instruction on how to keep your child safe during this time.
    • Call your county’s 24-hour crisis response line to get connected to a licensed mental health professional or 911.

If your child is experiencing suicidal ideation or a desire to hurt themselves, contact a licensed mental health professional for them to receive the treatment and support they need and require. Let them know that mental health professionals are trained to help them understand their feelings and will work with them to improve and manage those feelings (NAMI, n.d.).

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

24/7 Mobile Crisis Lines:

  • Dakota County: 952-891-7171
  • Washington County: 651-891-7171
  • Ramsey County: Adult- 651-266-7900; Child-651-266-7878
  • Hennepin County: Adult- 612-596-1223; Child- 612-348-2233
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

Information/ Resources

Safety plan apps:

Apps for Family/Friends

Article written by: Sarah Sandvik, LSW MSW Clinical Intern


American Association of Suicidology (2016). Recognizing and Responding to Suicide Risk: Essential Skills for Clinicians. Participant Manual.

NAMI. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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