When your child is having a mental health crisis, you might feel like their behavior is out of control. They might be angry, violent, withdrawn, very sad, or all of these mixed together. In a crisis, your child is past the point of helping themselves, and in that moment you don’t feel like you can help them either. This is the time to call for help.
We’ve talked to other parents and mental health experts and have gathered some tips and information about how to get that help for your child and for yourself.
What to Do in a Mental Health Crisis
A mental health crisis is formally defined as a time when there’s an imminent risk of a child hurting themselves or someone else. (Imminent means it’s likely to happen right now or soon.) A crisis might also be a time when you or other adults in the situation can’t help your child with their behavior and need help calming things down.
If your child is in crisis, think about their safety, your family’s safety, and the safety of anyone else around. If you feel unsafe, back away or get out of the room. Remove smaller children from the area. If you can, guide your child in crisis to a safe space where they are less likely to get hurt – or to hurt people or animals.
In a difficult moment like this, here are some ways you can help your child:
- Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly. Keep your voice calm, and use short sentences.
- Be willing to listen. Let them talk about or show their feelings. Accept their feelings.
- Don’t judge or argue with them. Don’t talk with them about whether their actions are right or wrong, or whether their feelings are good or bad.
- Let your child control their space. Ask permission before you touch them, and talk them through your movements and actions.
- Don't act shocked. This will put distance between you.
- Seek support during and after a crisis.
- Stay positive. Avoid sarcasm, and don't dare your child to hurt themselves.
- Offer hope that things can get better.
- Take action. Remove things they can use to hurt themselves, such as guns or bottles of pills.
- Get involved. Focus on your child. Show interest and support.
- Get help from one of the places listed below.
Here are some places where you can get help:
- Call 9-1-1 if you feel your child is in extreme crisis, needs immediate emergency services, and you are worried about someone’s safety. When you call 9-1-1, explain that your child is having a mental health crisis and ask for a responder who is trained in mental health issues. If the crisis is not quite this extreme, call your local mental health crisis hotline first and ask them what to do. 9-1-1 responders are more likely to take your child to a hospital than to help you manage your child’s crisis at home.
- Call your local mental health crisis hotline. You can find their phone number on this list of local mental health crisis lines. Or you can call 2-1-1 and ask for your local mental health crisis line.
- Call 1-800-989-6884 for the Texas Youth and Runaway Hotline, text them at 512-872-5777, or chat with them online. They can connect your child with free counseling services through the Services to At-Risk Youth (STAR) program within 24 hours.
- Call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE) or 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) to reach a suicide prevention hotline. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline also has an online chat.
- Call 1-800-950-6264 (1-800-950-NAMI) to reach a trained crisis specialist with the National Alliance on Mental Health.
- Visit IMAlive.org to chat online with a trained specialist.
When you contact one of the places above, you will get immediate phone or online help. Many of these hotline crisis workers will help you find local services and therapists to help your child. When you are talking to them, explain the situation and mention any behaviors that are concerning you. Some concerning behaviors are listed on our page on when to get mental health help for children.
To find out more about services, see our page on finding the right mental health resources for children.
Rebuilding After a Crisis
The effects of a mental health crisis won’t disappear overnight. Healing and understanding what happened is a process. Your child (and most likely other family members) will need support on this journey. Here are some things you can do to support your child:
- Learn the reasons why they were in crisis.
- Encourage them to follow the treatment plan. Your child’s doctors and therapists will work with you and your child to create this plan.
- Listen carefully for the emotions and thoughts behind your child’s words.
- Respect their feelings and decisions about their healing, even if you don’t always agree.
- Don’t push too hard. Healing will take time.
- Express your support out loud.
- Keep yourself, your child, and other family members safe.
- Don’t give up. And let your child know you aren’t giving up.
See the NAMI web page on supporting recovery for more tips on helping your child heal.
Creating Mental Health Crisis Plans
Making a crisis plan should involve your whole family. You might also get help from a mentor, a doctor, or a therapist. You and your child should always know where this plan is in case you need it.
If your child is showing many mental health symptoms or has a mental health diagnosis, it may make sense to work with them to create a crisis plan before one happens. This plan helps you and your child look out for the warning signs of a building crisis, know how to help, and begin to pick up the pieces after a crisis.
Your child might not always follow every part of their plan. Letting them be honest about what they have and haven’t done is an important part of their treatment.
What Goes Into Crisis Plans
There are different things that children and families choose to include in a crisis plan. Below are some common pieces. You and your child can work together to come up with short descriptions of the following:
- What your child feels like when they feel well.
- Things that might upset your child.
- Signs that a crisis is building up.
- Things your child can do to help manage their emotions, surroundings, and situation.
- Names of friends or family members to ask for help.
- Professionals and programs to contact before or during a crisis, and their phone numbers.
- Medical information that your child’s doctors need to have when your child is in crisis.
Once your child has had a mental health crisis, their plan may change to be more focused on healing and rebuilding. These changes might include:
- A review of their vision – what they feel like when feeling well – so they will know when they are there.
- A list of things it will take for your child to feel safe – at home, at school, and in the community.
- A list of ways your child can take care of themselves every day. Talk with your child to help them discover these things and point out how you can help.
- A list of people your child can call or go to for help or support.
- A list of people and things your child is going to avoid while they are healing.