(If you are thinking about suicide or need emotional support, the Lifeline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255)

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of teenagers struggle emotionally. Many of these are kids who have never had issues with mood in the past. It’s a reminder that just because a kid HAS always handled things easily doesn’t mean that they WILL always handle things easily. It has also led to lots of conversations around strategies for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression.

At some point during these conversations, I ask “If those strategies don’t work, what’s your back-up plan?” or “If you’re feeling really badly, maybe even so badly you think about hurting yourself, what are you going to do?” And, most of the time, the answer I get is “I don’t know.”

What is a back-up plan?

If a teen is struggling with their mood, stress level or bad thoughts, their parents should talk to their pediatrician or find a therapist or counselor. They can help develop strategies for handling those tough feelings. A back-up plan is a plan for if you are feeling worried, sad, overwhelmed or out-of-control and your stress relief strategies aren’t working or you can’t use your strategies. It’s a way to reach out to other people so you don’t have to handle things alone. It’s knowing that asking other people for help is a smart, responsible way to help ourselves.

Everyone should have a back-up plan. You never know if or when you are going to need it. But if you do, you want to have one ready. In the middle of a car accident is no time to install an airbag; in the middle of a crisis is not a great time to make a back-up plan. Most drivers will never need an airbag, but if we do, we’re glad it was installed before-hand!

(Some people know the term “crisis plan” from behavioral health. However, when people hear crisis plans, they tend to imagine something very formal and written that can only be used in a crisis. A back-up plan can be simple and easily changed and can be used whenever you want. )

How do you make a back-up plan?

A back-up plan will be different for everyone but each has a few key components. 1) When will you use it? 2) Who are you going to reach out to? 3) How are you going to reach out? 4) What’s your back-up to your back-up?

We discuss when to use the plan below, so we’ll start here with the “Who.” Some people already have an adult they feel comfortable talking to about tough issues. Some people feel more comfortable talking to someone they don’t know, like a confidential hotline. Some prefer to text. The most important thing is that you choose a method that you will actually use. If you choose an adult you know, it may be helpful to let them know ahead of time so they know how to help you. (It’s important that an adult is part of the back-up plan. Teen friends can be very helpful in stressful situations, but it is unfair to have friends take on this kind of responsibility. It can also put a strain on a friendship if they feel torn between keeping your feelings private and wanting to help you by sharing your situation with another adult.)

How are you going to reach this person? In-person? Call? Is their number memorized? Maybe you can discuss a code word with them ahead of time so they know to drop what they’re doing. If it’s a hotline, is it programmed into your phone? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

And make sure you have a back-up to your back-up. If someone doesn’t answer the phone, what then? If you’re super-annoyed at your person and don’t want to talk to them, what will you do instead?

When do you use a back-up plan?

There is no down-side to using your plan. Don’t worry about not feeling “bad enough” to need it. If anything, the sooner you use your back-up plan, the better it usually works.

That being said, it can help to identify times when you might need it. Maybe there are triggers that are upsetting- a specific person, a reminder about a bad event, trouble with school/sports/work. When those triggers come up, you can use some of your other strategies right away and think about whether you need your back-up plan.

Most of the time, we know it’s time to use a back-up plan by how we feel. If you are thinking about hurting yourself, it’s time to use the back-up plan. If you are having thoughts that scare you, it’s time to use the back-up plan. Pay attention to your body and emotions. Are you feeling hot and tingly? Panicked? Tight all over? Hopeless? Low-energy? Heavy? Any of these may be signs to start using some of your stress-relief strategies and think about whether it is time to use your back-up plan.

Back-up plan examples

Back-up plans will be very individualized. They can be simple or more detailed. Remember, the best plan is the one that you’ll use. Here are a couple examples to get you started:

When I start to feel down, I’ll go for a run and listen to music. If that doesn’t work or if I have any scary thoughts, I will call my aunt. If she doesn’t answer, I’ll call the National Suicide Lifeline. Both phone numbers are in my cell phone.”

“If I start to panic, I’ll try a breathing exercise. If I can’t do that, I’ll hand my dad a piece of paper that says “panicked”. We’ve already talked about this and he knows that’s a sign that I am having a hard time and need extra help. If it’s during the school day, I will go to the school counselor. If those don’t work, I’ll text the Crisis Textline.”


National Suicide Lifeline 1-800-273-8225 : 24/7 Confidential Line. Anyone can call for emotional support whether or not you’re thinking about suicide)

Crisis TextlineText HOME to 741-741 : 24/7 Confidential Chat for any crisis or anyone who needs support)

The Trevor Project 1-866-488-7386 or Text START to 678-678 : Suicide prevention, crisis intervention and support for LGBTQ young people

Mental Health is Health: Website with resources, education and support for young people who want to take care of their own mental health or help a friend with mental health concerns