This article focuses on the awkward days or weeks after the confession when the risk is not necessarily high but you are feeling anxious and don’t know what to do after you’ve done an assessment, or made an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist. You may even feel you are on “suicide watch.”
You probably want to ask, “Are you OK?” every time they walk in the door. You may even jump every time that phone rings fearing it’s “the call.” You may even be tempted to exact a promise they won’t try suicide or dismiss their thoughts as “trying to get attention” or otherwise say things like, “You have so much to live for.” All of those invalidate your child’s feelings.
This article focuses on your worry and how you work through that with yourself and your child.
Agonizing about a projected scenario does not help because it puts your brain in an emotional state that doesn’t allow you to connect to your thinking brain. It freezes you. It was only after a few visits to support group that I was able to let go of the tortuous worry that was keeping my stomach wound as tight as a washcloth being wrung out.
So what do you do?
First, take a deep breath. This is not something that is solved by a single therapist visit or in a week or two. You’re in this for the long haul.
These days, it’s not step one to go to a hospital unless the child has been assessed as being a high risk for suicide which is determined with an evaluation. Consider yourself fortunate your child shared this with you. Now, you must learn to communicate and connect with your child in a different way and that includes opening up and confessing your worries with “I feel” words.
Tell your child that you are trying to figure this out, too, but you are there, no matter what. Share with them where you are coming from, being careful not to judge or lecture your child.
That starts with your confession. “I am honored and grateful you confided in me about your thoughts of suicide. That took enormous courage and I’m very proud of you. I am working through this, too and have to confess that at times, I feel panicked and terrified of the thought of losing you. And that means I want to constantly ask, call or text you to find out and ask how you are doing but I know how annoying and unproductive that is so I try to resist. It makes me feel short tempered and anxious.
The look you see on my face doesn’t mean you have let me down. That look you see is pure fear. I love you so much that the thought of losing you scares the life out of me.
Number one, I will figure out my own feelings but I’m asking if you can help me work through this by offering your mom a hug and connecting with me more so that I feel less panicked. I will find some support for myself because I want to understand. That includes educating myself, too.
Number two. Until you can meet with a therapist and establish a plan to keep yourself safe during periods when you are suffering thoughts of suicide, I am going to ask you to enter these numbers into your phone. It will make me feel better. Call me any time, but should I not be available because I am in the shower or some other reason, plan now to contact the crisis text line at 741-741, or reach out to the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Thank you for listening to me and know that I am here to listen to you, too.”
When they express a feeling, make sure to understand their fears by asking, “What frightens you about that?” Ask without passing judgement and listen with empathy without providing a solution. You can ask how you can help or ask how they might deal with the issue. But when you try and fix, they resist. Tell your child you are confident they, and you, and a professional will work through this together.
In the next few weeks and months, let your child in some of your decision making, too. For example, if you have a choice at work to take a new position and you are wrestling with the decision, ask your child’s opinion. For one, they’ll reflect back to you things you didn’t think of. That helps them learn to problem solve and that you respect and trust they are capable of coming up with solutions. It doesn’t mean you have to do them but thank them for their insight.
Overall, asking more questions, and not the probing kind, helps them develop their own solutions.
“How do you think you might handle that?” Or, “What do you think would work best?”
I know this is a tough place to be and there is no easy, quick fix. I wish there was. There may be medication involved and adjustments, as well as diagnosis of a mental illness.
It is important is for you to seek support, too. The solution is not to “send them off to be fixed.” Everyone has to shift, try to understand, and become more educated.
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