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Not often, but not infrequently in my role as a therapist, I hear “my 8-year-old said he didn’t want to be alive anymore.” Sometimes this statement is a one-off, an exaggeration of how a child is feeling because they were caught in a lie or are embarrassed.
Yet, if you hear statements about wanting to die frequently, coupled with other changes in a child’s mood and personality, it may be a reflection of distress they are experiencing.
Children in elementary school are at a low risk for attempting and completing suicide. However, when an elementary-aged child makes statements about wanting to die or kill themselves, it is a signal to pay attention to what is going on in their world.
At this age, children are straddling two stages of development that makes suicide and distress difficult to understand, both by themselves and their parents.
The first stage is the one they are trying to leave behind, one in which they only understand life from their own perspective. Children may understand what death is but are unable to grasp the finality of dying.
The next stage children move into marks a change in thinking, one measured by what is experienced with their five senses. Try challenging a child in this stage about something they “know” to be true and you will have taken on the Herculean task of changing their mind.
Add bullying at school or at home and he/she starts to believe every negative message that is hurled his way. While stepping into a child’s distress is scary, there are a number of steps parents can take to support a child’s well being.
Be Aware of Warning Signs: Aside from actual statements about wanting to die, there are other warning signs that may be more indicative of distress. Watch out for drastic changes in mood or behavior that are not typical for your child. It may look like aggression towards others or withdrawing from the family. Another indicator for risk of suicide in children is signs of depression, including changes in sleep or eating patterns.
Create a Safe Space: A child’s ability to deal with stress is not as developed as an adult’s. Feeling overwhelmed can be triggered by a space that reminds them of a stressful event, thus it’s important when you start to talk to your child about distressing events that they feel safe and calm. For example, if they are getting bullied at school, it may not be best to talk to them on the ride home, when they are still stressed out about the day.
Listen and Ask: When children are feeling safe and begin to talk, it is important to listen and offer empathy. Remember that children at this age may not believe that you or anyone could understand or even handle what they are feeling. Respond calmly to what they have to say and point out what emotions they might be having. Don’t tell them they are wrong for feeling the way they feel, this only cements their belief that they are facing it alone.
Open the Door: Create regular time to talk about the feelings and experiences your child is having. Educate yourself about how your child acts at school and talk to teachers and counselors about what you see. Learn ways to help your child cope with stressors at school or home, and teach these skills to your child.
Seek Help: If there is imminent danger, always call emergency services. If you see the warning signs and there is no slowing down of statements about death and dying, reach out to local mental health professionals for help. If you don’t know where to start, reach out to the school and ask for help.
Parents can, through early intervention, address and alleviate a child’s distress. Parents possess the greatest amount of information about a child’s needs and behaviors, so use this knowledge and the many resources available to you to help your child as only a parent can.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jarid Rollins is a licensed mental health therapist for Mind Springs Health in Aspen and can be reached at 970.920.5555. Mind Springs Health is the largest provider of mental health and addiction therapy on the Western Slope with 13 outpatient locations—including Meeker—and the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City.