Suicide, Self-Harm, and Kids: Know the Warning Signs & Where to Go for Help

6 min to read
Image of a mother in a grey shirt giving her child in a white shirt a comforting hug.

The statistics are alarming and the stories heartbreaking. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15–24, and the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10–14. In 2021, emergency departments across the country noted a sharp rise in 12-to-17-year-olds needing treatment for suicidal actions. A survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 5 said they’d thought about suicide. 

Our children are facing a mental health crisis, with more than a third of high school students reporting they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

It can be hard for parents to know or see suicidal warning signs or signs of self-harm, such as cutting, in their kids. The teen years can be an emotional roller-coaster ride as kids go through the hormonal changes of puberty and learn to navigate increasingly complex social situations and interactions. Kids this age also try to push boundaries as they assert their independence, which can create conflicts at home. As a parent, how can you tell if your child is experiencing normal teenage emotional growing pains or is having a mental health crisis that could lead to self-harm or suicide?  

Self-Harm and Suicide Ideation

It’s important for parents to know that there is a difference between suicidal thoughts and self-harm in children. Self-harm is when a child in crisis causes injury to themselves through things like cutting, skin carving, or burning. Self-harm in kids is generally a way for them to cope with what is happening in their lives or with what they are feeling. It’s estimated that 15% of teenagers and up to 35% of college students have engaged in self-harm.  

Why Do Kids Self-Harm?

Kids that self-harm often say it’s a way for them to feel something. They feel empty or numb inside, and the pain of self-harm alleviates that emptiness for a moment. Self-harm in children is also a way for them to forget about emotional pain or trauma.  Here are some warning signs that your child may be engaging in self-harm: 

  • They have wounds that won’t heal or get worse. 
  • They collect sharp tools such as scissors, glass, safety pins, etc.  
  • hey wear a lot of Band-Aids. 
  • They wear long-sleeved shirts in warm weather. 
  • They isolate themselves and avoid social activities.  

If you discover your child is self-harming, speak with them in a nonjudgmental way and connect them with a mental health professional who can help them find positive coping mechanisms. Let them know that you are part of a team to support them.   Talk to your child’s school counselor, pediatrician, or a licensed therapist to get your child the help they need. Give them the Crisis Text Line, where they can text “Home” to 741741 and speak with a counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so they have a place to turn in the moment of crisis.  With professional help, your child will learn how to navigate and overcome the feelings that lead them to self-harm.  

Image of a a parent in a red and white plaid shirt supporting their child.

Teen Suicide

It’s hard for parents to understand or accept that their child would want to take their own life. They often miss the signs that their teenager is having a mental health crisis and thinking about suicide.  

It’s important to remember that a child’s brain isn’t fully developed until they are around 25 years old. Prior to that, they can be impulsive and act in the heat of the moment. They also have a harder time working through emotional problems, which could lead to anxiety and depression—a leading cause of suicide. Kids who attempt suicide report feeling stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, disappointment, and loss.  

Factors that could lead to teens having suicidal thoughts: 

  • family history of suicide and mental health issues 
  • abuse, violence, and other forms of trauma  
  • separation from loved ones due to things like divorce, deployment, and incarceration  
  • bullying (including cyberbullying) 
  • discrimination and/or rejection due to sexual orientation and gender identity 
  • loss or rejection from classmates, boyfriends or girlfriends, and others 
  • substance abuse feelings of hopelessness and depression that they can’t overcome 

Suicidal Warning Signs in Kids

While some kids exhibit no signs that they are planning to take their own life, generally kids show signs of being in crisis prior to any suicide attempt. While each child is different, here are five red flags to watch for that are signs of a suicidal student. If you have any doubt, it’s always best to seek professional help immediately.  

1. Talking About Suicide or Saying They Want to Die

Take any comments about committing suicide or wanting to die seriously. If your child says they want to die, listen to them. Show empathy. Most importantly, seek professional help.  

2. Giving Away Belongings

Many tweens and teens have treasures and keepsakes that are important to them. It’s a red flag when they start giving those things away. They may do this because they know they will no longer need them or they want those things remembered and protected after they are gone.  

3. Engaging in Risky Behavior

People who have planned their own death often feel like they have nothing to lose. They start to engage in risky behavior, such as driving recklessly or using drugs and alcohol.  

4. Pulling Away from Friends and Family

Depression can lead to teens isolating themselves from friends and family. They may feel they aren’t worthy of spending time with their friend group or that they don’t deserve to have fun. They stop doing things socially that they used to enjoy and avoid spending time with friends.  

5. Changes in Normal Behaviors

Major changes in eating and sleeping habits are a sign that something is wrong. Teens who are depressed or considering suicide may stop taking care of their personal hygiene—not showering regularly or brushing their hair. They may struggle doing their schoolwork, and their grades could slip.     

Image of a a parent in a pink sweater shirt supporting their child.

Finding Help for Kids Thinking About Suicide

If your child is showing warning signs or they are talking about harming themselves, it’s important to take immediate action. Even if you are unsure if what you’re seeing are warning signs, seek help. The stakes are too high. Keep a close eye on them. If they are in immediate danger, take them to the emergency room for evaluation. 

You can find help by contacting your child’s school counselor or pediatrician, who can recommend a mental health evaluation along with providers who specialize in youth mental health. A mental health provider can help your teen create a safety plan that serves as a personalized guide for what to do when they are feeling overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, and don’t stop trying to get them to open up about what they are feeling or experiencing. Respond with compassion and empathy, and let them know they are not alone. 

Encourage your teen to reconnect with friends, volunteer in the community, or start an exercise routine. Exercise is a natural mood booster and can help pull kids out of depression. Reduce access to lethal means of self-harm for anyone at risk of suicide by securing or removing firearms and medications. 

Download the Suicide Awareness resource sheet and share it with friends and others in your community. Keep the following numbers in a visible place. These resources are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to help kids through those moments when they feel all hope is lost.  

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