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Upset and confused child after a suicide death

Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:

When Your Child Says, “I’m Going to Kill Myself!”

by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti

Q: “When my 9-year-old son gets frustrated, he says, ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ This touches all of my buttons, and I don’t know what to say.”

It can feel very scary when your child says he wants to kill himself, particularly if someone you love has completed suicide.

Your son is trying to communicate something to you, but at this point it isn’t clear what that is. Most often, a child is simply using words he knows are powerful and attention-getting in order to underline his level of distress rather than to convey actual suicidal intent.

Those words are also said by children whose families have not experienced a loss from suicide, just because they are so dramatic. They don’t mean it literally any more than they mean it literally when they tell their mothers, “You’re a mean witch and I hate you!” You want to take your son’s distress seriously, but not jump to conclusions about what his words mean. You don’t want to convey a sense of panic, so take a step back and take some deep breaths. Then check it out with him. You’re not assuming anything; you’re not accusing him of anything; you’re just tuning in to him and finding out what he’s trying to let you know.

You can start by saying in a calm voice, “I can see you’re upset. And you’re trying to tell me something. Help me understand what’s going on.” As the conversation goes on, you can ask in a gentle voice, “I heard you saying you want to kill yourself. What did you mean by that?” You may want a specific follow-up question: “Are you really thinking of hurting yourself?”

If he does say that he really is thinking about hurting or killing himself, if he has made a suicide attempt in the past, if he is seriously depressed*, or is using drugs or alcohol, then you want to take him promptly for an evaluation by a mental health professional skilled in evaluating youngsters for suicidal risk. (Those “red flags” are more commonly seen in adolescents than in younger children, but it’s good to be aware of them.) Even if the professional doesn’t see imminent risk, he or she may recommend treatment to help your youngster deal with his distress.

It’s likely, though, that your child will say, “I didn’t mean I really want to kill myself. I just get so frustrated.” Or, maybe, “…I miss Daddy so much.” Or, “Our life sucks now. I hate it.” Then you can say you understand that things have been really hard for your child and let him know you want to know more about how he is feeling.

Compliment him when he’s able to express what he’s actually feeling, the more precisely the better, even if those feelings are painful or difficult, and even if they involve you. Let him know that it’s so much more helpful when he uses words that really describe what’s going on inside him because then you and he can figure out what to do to help make things better. You can ask directly, “How can I help?” He may not know, but he’ll appreciate the concern, and you’ve set the tone of problem-solving.

There are things you can do that may help.

First, let him know that you’re all in this together and you care about his hurt. It won’t always hurt this much.

If your son’s grief is affecting his ability to do his schoolwork, talk to his teacher to see if he can get some extra help and perhaps some modification of his assignments for a while.

If he’s been feeling cut off from you because you’ve been so stunned and sad, try making some time each day when the two of you can connect one-on-one. You can plan together what fun, fulfilling things he can do (or the family can do together) to make life seem less bleak.

If he has thoughts about re-uniting with Daddy, let him know that Daddy’s brain was sick when he made his body stop working. You and Daddy both always wanted your son to grow up and become a man, only to die at a ripe old age after a full life. And you know he can have that life. Choosing death is not a good solution.

If your child is feeling isolated or just needs a safe place to express his feelings, you can see if there is a children’s bereavement group he can participate in. Individual therapy can also be helpful for children who have a lot of feelings to sort out or who seem to be becoming depressed.

If you determine you child was saying, “I want to kill myself!” as a way of letting you know that he was feeling bad, but didn’t mean he actually wanted to kill himself, don’t punish him for his words. Don’t yell at him, and don’t panic. Instead, let him know that there are better ways to communicate what he is feeling. Words are powerful and we want to say what we mean. Tell him he can practice saying what he’s actually is feeling, and you will respect that. And you’ll do the best you can to help him.

*Sadness, irritability, less interest or pleasure in activities, trouble concentrating, and fatigue are symptoms of depression that are common in normal grief. If these symptoms seem to get stronger over time and start to “take over,” particularly if they are accompanied by recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, by feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, marked by a change in activity level or ongoing sleep problems or eating problems, it’s a good idea to have your child evaluated for the possibility of depression.

Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti co-authored the book 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children. Anne is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and their parents in Northfield, IL. Vicki is Manager of Children’s Bereavement Services at Rainbow Hospice in Mt. Prospect, IL. They created this Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death Series for the Alliance of Hope.