What parent is prepared for the trauma of a teenage suicide attempt? It is an exhausting and bewildering experience. From the first shock of dealing with attempted suicide in the family, to the anxiety of navigating an emergency room visit, to the repetitive thoughts and questions that make sleep difficult, it can be one of the most frightening and confusing events in a family’s life together. At first, attention is necessarily focused on stabilizing the physical and mental health of the child in crisis. So it can be easy to overlook the longer-lasting effects of suicidal attempts on family dynamics. But family response to suicide is a significant factor in preventing a future teen suicide attempt. Hence, it is crucial to consider the impact on the entire family of a suicidal person.
Family Response to Suicide After the Crisis
A suicide attempt may take a family by surprise. It’s common for parents to feel anger or guilt. Perhaps the teen had been masking their depression, or the warning signs of depression were mistaken for typical teenage mood swings. An attempt reveals to the family of a suicidal person the true depth of a child’s struggle. The effects of teenage suicide on family can have a lifelong impact. A teen who has made a suicide attempt must receive ongoing, long-term care to address the mental health issues that led to this crisis.
While the past cannot be changed, parents do have control over how they show up in their teen’s life after the attempt. And they can make an enormous difference by maintaining an authentic connection with their child based on openhearted curiosity and unconditional love. A supportive family response to suicide greatly improves the treatment and recovery outcomes for a teen who is struggling with depression.
Factors Related to Suicide Risk
Experts have been frustrated for decades by the inability to predict who will make a suicidal gesture and the best methods on how to prevent teen suicide. No single commonly accepted risk factor (such as depression, previous suicide attempts, stressful life events, or substance abuse) is a reliable predictor. But a new way of thinking about suicide, known as the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, identifies a network of factors. Research demonstrates the following factors are reliable predictors when they occur in combination:
- A person’s feelings that they don’t belong
- Their perception of being a burden
- Hopelessness that the perceived situation will ever change
- Having a lowered fear of pain and death, whether from abuse, self-harm behaviors, substance abuse, or mental illness.
Fortunately, the first two of these factors are within a family’s influence. For most teens, the family has a powerful influence on the perception of belonging and not being a burden. Thus, the family response to suicide is a critical component of post-crisis care.
Effects of Suicidal Attempts on Family Relationships and Routines
It’s important to realize that once a child comes home from hospitalization and/or residential treatment—or if they are home while attending outpatient treatment—family life will not return to what it used to be. The effects of suicidal attempts on family dynamics and a family’s everyday functioning continue to be felt long after the immediate crisis is over.
Here are some of the ways in which the family is impacted after a teen suicide attempt, and what parents and siblings may experience.
Your child seems like a different person.
If your child had been masking their depression before the suicide attempt, they may not want or be able to hide it any longer. That’s a good thing, because they are being more honest about what they’re going through, which is vital in order to move toward healing. But it can be challenging for parents who are used to thinking of their teen as “just fine” or “not a problem.” Parents may need to readjust to this more authentic version of their child. It’s vital for them to work on accepting and embracing their teen’s expressions and moods, even if they are difficult to cope with, so they don’t go “underground” again with their depression.
Safety precautions may require changes around the home and in routines.
The risk of a second suicide attempt is highest within the first six months after an initial attempt, and research demonstrates that the risk remains high for a year. All family members need to be on board with ensuring that a teen cannot access dangerous items (for example, knives, scissors, razors, medications, car keys, or guns). Routines may need to change to ensure that teens have the support and monitoring they need at home. Take care that your child does not perceive these precautions as a source of conflict or resentment. Feeling like a burden is a significant risk factor for acting on subsequent suicidal thoughts.
Parental oversight necessarily increases.
Few teens willingly relinquish newly gained independence. Parenting a suicidal teen requires a delicate balance between increasing oversight and cautiously allowing them to resume their independence. Start by asking your teen what feels helpful and what does not, and accommodate their preferences as much as you safely can. At the same time, recognize that you may be experiencing PTSD symptoms yourself—such as jumpiness, nightmares, flashbacks, or difficulty concentrating—that make you hypervigilant and hamper effective communication with your teen. Prioritize your own self-care or seek professional help to address these symptoms.
Sibling relationships may shift.
The effects of suicidal attempts on family dynamics includes siblings as well as parents. Siblings are likely to feel scared by the crisis and confused about what it means for them and for the family. Their needs may get overshadowed by the needs of the teen in crisis. Younger children may even feel responsible in some way, or take it personally when their gestures of comfort don’t work. Older children can struggle with their part in the family’s effort to keep the child in crisis safe. There is also a danger that a sibling may conclude that they need to take drastic action to get their parents’ attention. Parents can help them recognize their signs of stress and learn how to reduce it. Reassurance that they are important too is essential. If parents’ time and energy are stretched thin, an extended family member or friend may be helpful in making sure siblings receive focused and loving attention.
Communication is more important than ever.
Be aware, however, that this is a difficult time to establish new communication habits with your teen. Do not expect heart-to-heart conversations if you haven’t had them before. But do establish a regular check-in routine that your teen will be comfortable with. It’s also helpful to have a shorthand way for them to communicate their needs without having to talk much. For example, a teen can help set up a scale of distress that they can quickly refer to. Ideally, the scale will include ideas about would be helpful at each level of intensity.
Understanding Parent Coping Styles in Response to a Suicide Attempt
Dealing with attempted suicide in the family is an unprecedented stressor for most people. Natural differences in coping styles can be an added source of tension in a marriage or co-parenting relationship. Parents are facing two daunting tasks simultaneously—how to respond to a situation both beyond their control and outside their experience, and how to regulate their own intense emotions.
It helps to understand that if a co-parent takes a different approach than your own, it may reflect a different coping style. Below are three of the most common approaches.
3 Types of Coping Styles
- Problem-oriented coping: Some parents tackle the situation as a problem to be solved, looking for answers and solutions and reaching out to people who can help. This approach can be a healthy way to relieve a stressful situation. However, it is essential that the teen does not internalize the idea that their parent regards them as a problem to be fixed.
- Emotion-oriented coping: Another coping strategy is to focus on ways to reduce the emotional pain around this event, perhaps by finding an outlet, such as journaling; seeking comfort in social support or religion; or cultivating a degree of acceptance of the situation. Humor may also serve as an emotional release for some. But emotion-oriented coping can be less useful if a parent disengages from the situation completely, or vents their emotions in a way that makes things worse, particularly in their relationship with their teen.
- Avoidance-oriented coping: Some forms of avoidance-oriented coping are essential for surviving a crisis—in moderation. Distracting oneself with TV, work, or other activities can bring momentary relief from stress. But avoidance coping can also be harmful, if it prevents a parent from addressing the root cause of the occurrence or ignoring the effects of suicidal attempts on family.
Is One Coping Style Better Than Another?
Because dealing with attempted suicide in the family presents some elements that are in one’s control and some that are not, both problem-oriented and emotion-oriented strategies will be appropriate at different times. And because a person’s coping style is partially a function of personality, one style may come more naturally than another.
A parent’s coping style is also shaped by past experiences. The current crisis may reawaken memories of childhood trauma deep in a parent’s past, triggering an unhelpful style of coping. If you observe unhelpful coping styles in yourself or your partner, it is essential to get professional support for yourselves as part of the process of helping your child. That support will make it easier for you to weather the effects of suicidal attempts on family life.
Treatment to Heal the Effects of Suicidal Attempts on Family
At Newport Academy, we address the effects of suicidal attempts on family connection by healing the ruptures in the parent-child relationship, so teens feel safe turning to their parents for support when they are struggling. The groundbreaking Attachment-Based Family Therapy modality is a critical component of every customized treatment plan for our clients and families.
Our treatment model also encompasses approaches for cognitive reframing and improving distress tolerance, so teens have healthy ways of coping with difficult emotions and experiences. Contact us today to learn more and get started on the path to healing.
Front Psychol. 16 April 2019.
Psychol Bull. 2017 Feb;143 (2): 187–232.
J Ment Health. 2017 Aug;26 (4): 366–372.
Psychol Bull. 2017 Dec;143 (12): 1313–1345.
Am J Psych. 2016 Nov; 173 (11): 1094–1100.