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What to Know about Adolescents and Suicide

October 4, 2023

A mother comforts her distraught teenage daughter

If your parenting philosophy centers on how to make your kids listen to you, here’s something else to consider. Try listening in ways that encourage your kids to talk to you rather than just listen, and you’ll create a safe space for them to share all kinds of thoughts.

“The key ingredients that promote well-being and prevent self-harm, anxiety and depression, and even suicidal thoughts all hinge on the same descriptives — compassion and connectedness,” says Adam Silberman, MD, the new pediatric medical director of Child and Adolescent Services at Atlantic Health System.

Youth Suicide Ideation and Action

Research shows that most adults act upon the decision of suicide within 15 minutes. For adolescents, whose decision-making function in the frontal lobe is still undeveloped, that timeframe decreases to about five minutes. Yes, five minutes.

Understanding that most suicide attempts are quick decisions in the context of a disappointing event within the last 24 hours — a breakup, a bad grade, feeling like an outsider on social media — these can all be precursors to suicide. Parents who connect with their children through kindness and compassion can prevent suicidal ideation and access and make their child far less likely to make an attempt.

Throwing Our Kids a Lifeline

“The last 24 hours before the last five minutes of deciding and attempting suicide is everything,” says Dr. Silberman. “What’s most important in that last 24 hours to turn the tide is feeling connected and receiving compassion from others, and yourself.”

Dr. Silberman also explains that if adolescents don’t have access with one means of suicide, they do not look for another way. They simply do not make a suicide attempt. Not in the moment, and not later.

“We need to give our kids airbags and seatbelts — safety measures for their own mental health,” says Dr. Silberman. “We, as parents, serve as the airbags and seatbelts for our children.”

“Talking with your kids about their lives, whether it be suicide, breakups, homework, you name it, is shame for them and often judgment from us,” says Dr. Silberman, who has firsthand experience with his own four children. “Shame is toxic and a catalyst for kids to remain quiet in fear of judgment.”

Listening So That Kids Will Talk to Us

In his work with parents and adolescents, Dr. Silberman teaches the HUG Model, which is short for Hear, Understand, and Give Feedback. The model uses every effort to avoid two powerful words, “should” and “but”, which imply judgment and are a relationship barrier.

“I could lay out countless bullet points on how to talk to your kids about suicide. But there are no phrases, topics or words that replace your kids knowing they have a soft place to land with you,” says Dr. Silberman.

Here are three tips to build a strong barrier that prevents your adolescent from self-harm.

  1. A sense of belonging and connectedness is one of the greatest buffers we have from mental and physical health problems.
  2. Social connection has been shown to be one the greatest protective factors for depression.
  3. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are mitigated by feeling connected.

Part of a Parent’s Job Is to Know

“The work we as parents must do takes place well before the last 24 hours of the last five minutes. It’s our job to create a judgment-free space where our kids can be heard and understood,” says Dr. Silberman, who emphasizes that the most protective factor in those last 24 hours is the ability to talk with someone who you feel cares about you.

“Feeling validated anchors our sense of self,” says Dr. Silberman. “It is the anti-lock brakes steering us away from isolation, loneliness, and impulsive unfortunate choices in life. If we learn how to best listen, our kids will talk.”


Atlantic Behavioral Health Crisis Intervention Services - 24-hour Hotlines

Additional crisis intervention providers:

  • Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ Youth: 1-866-488-7386
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: Dial 988 and Press 1
  • Dial 211: 211 provides callers with information about and referrals to social services for every day needs and in times of crisis
  • SAMHSA Treatment Locator
  • Mental Wellness
  • Children's Health