What to Do If Your Child Is in Crisis

Recognizing that your child is experiencing a mental health crisis can be difficult. You may not be sure what constitutes a crisis situation versus a “bad day” or “phase.” You may feel scared — perhaps you feel unsure of how to protect your child. Combine this with navigating a complicated school and health care system and a lack of resources for people struggling with a mental health crisis, and it’s easy to feel discouraged.

Remember to trust your instincts. You are the expert on your child. Even in this complicated situation, the certainties are that you love them the most, you know them the best and you will do whatever is necessary to keep your child safe.

What Is a Crisis?

A mental health crisis is when your child is at risk of harming themselves or others, or if their emotions and behavior seem extreme and out of control.

Warning signs of mental health crisis may include:

  • Expressing suicidal thoughts, either through explicit statements such as “I want to die” or more vague statements such as “I don’t want to be here anymore”
  • Making threats to harm others or themselves
  • Engaging in self-injurious behavior, such as cutting or burning
  • Expressing severe agitation and aggression, including physical aggression, destruction of property, hostility, etc.
  • Experiencing hallucinations or delusions
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family

How to Take Action

Once you suspect that your child is in crisis, you will have some decisions to make. How you proceed depends on whether they are in immediate danger and the resources available in your community.

Immediate Danger

If you feel that your child’s life or someone else’s life is in danger, this is an emergency — you must take immediate action to keep everyone safe. Call 911 (or a local crisis line) or go to your nearest emergency room. Under no circumstances should you leave them alone.

Tips for calling 911

  • Let 911 operators know that your child is experiencing a mental health crisis. Many communities have responders trained to support youth experiencing a mental health crisis, so it’s important that they have this information.
  • Specifically ask if there is a children’s crisis team. These specialists are trained to intervene in these situations.
  • Provide as much detail as possible about the situation.

No Immediate Danger

If you are confident that your child is not at immediate risk, and that you can manage the situation, consider the following steps. Keep in mind that even if it’s not a physical “emergency,” it is still an urgent situation that should be addressed as quickly as possible.

  • Create a safe space for them to talk about their feelings and actively listen. It’s ok to ask questions, but most importantly, reassure them that you are here to support and help them.
  • If your child is already receiving mental health treatment, get in touch with their psychiatrist or therapist. They can provide guidance on what to do next, incorporating their knowledge of your child and the current situation.
  • If your child is not currently receiving treatment, they will need a mental health assessment. Connecting with mental health services for children can be a challenge, but primary care physicians are often able to provide screenings and referrals.
  • Connect with a hotline or text line that provides crisis intervention services and resources, such as Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
  • Proactively create a crisis plan to determine your plan of action if your child’s mental health ever escalates to an emergency. Part of creating that crisis plan is determining how to keep other children in your household safe during this type of emergency.
 

Resources

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (the Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) has crisis workers to support you and are available 24/7.
  • Crisis Text Line
    You can text with a crisis counselor who is available to provide support 24/7
  • Local crisis services
    Your city or state may have crisis services that can be available to you as well.
  • Navigating a Mental Health Crisis Guide
    Provides important, potentially life-saving information for people experiencing mental health crises and their loved ones. This guide outlines what can contribute to a crisis, warning signs that a crisis is emerging, strategies to help de-escalate a crisis, available resources and so much more.
  • NAMI Basics OnDemand
    NAMI Basics OnDemand is a free, six-session online education program for parents, caregivers and other family who provide care for youth who are experiencing mental health symptoms. NAMI Basics OnDemand is an adaptation of the in-person course offered in 43 states by NAMI affiliates.