Originally posted March 24, 2009
The February hanging death of 10-year-old Aquan Lewis of Evanston, Illinois, which, as of this writing is officially ruled a suicide, rattled a lot of Chicagoland parents, including this one. We may never learn Aquan's whole story, but if he really did take his own life he would not be the first pre-teen to do so.
What possesses a child so young to take his own life?
Often, when a child threatens or even attempts suicide it is an impulsive act borne of emotional frustration or feelings of humiliation or anger, not a premeditated plan end to end his life. Young children cannot typically comprehend the consequences of their threats or attempts, and very young children lack the ability to comprehend death's permanence. When children are made aware of the finality and the realities of death - what happens to the body and the fact that they can never come back - they often reconsider, but that is, by no means, the end of the conversation.
Young children tend to be very concrete in their thinking and need to be prompted to explain what they mean by wanting "to die." Sometimes you can get to the root of the matter by asking a child how he thinks things would improve if he was dead.
Children and teenagers sometimes make threats for their shock value in a moment of conflict or despair, but not always because they wish to manipulate. Sometimes they simply lack more sophisticated ways of describing and managing troubling feelings. Don't forget that children model our ways of coping with stress and life's difficulties, so bear this in mind if you tend to cavalierly threaten to kill yourself when you're angry or frustrated. The important thing here is to help your child to learn more productive ways to manage and express what upsets him. Something must be disturbing him greatly, something about which he feels he has little control, for him to resort to words that command such attention. What's he really after?
During conversations with your child it can be helpful to remind him of times he's felt badly about something and about how the situation did become resolved, and about how his bad feelings eventually subsided. Helping him to brainstorm ways in which he problem-solved past hurts can remind him of the skills he already has for dealing with present ones. Help him to see that 'this too shall pass.'
But what if it doesn't
Take your child seriously. Don't dismiss or shame him for his feelings. If what he says feels too big for you to handle on your own, or if he expresses persistent thoughts of suicide or has a plan and the means available to execute this plan, don't hesitate - even for one minute - to get help. Err on the side of caution. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- TALK (8255) for free and confidential service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Calls are routed to the nearest call center (for 24-hour help en espanol call 1-888-628-9454). Ask your friends, school counselor, pediatrician or clergyperson for referrals to reputable counselors or go to aamft.org and use the therapist locator to find a family therapist near you. Your child may balk at treatment, but think about it: would you hesitate to get treatment if your child had a broken arm? If your child's threat to kill himself is imminent and you need immediate assistance, drive him to the nearest emergency room (but only if you can do this safely) or dial 911.
Sadly, some suicides seem to occur without any obvious warnings or threats, which can make us feel so helpless as parents. But what if you have a gut feeling that something just isn't right? Then ask. Parents tend to worry that merely asking a child if he is suicidal is dangerous, that doing so will somehow plant the idea in his head. The clear answer to this question is no, however. Quite the opposite is true. It can be a tremendous relief for a child to be allowed to discuss the troubling feelings and thoughts he has. It's really important that those thoughts be normalized. It surprises most folks to learn that actually, most people feel so badly at least once in their lives that they consider dying a viable solution to their problems, at least as a fleeting thought. Kids need to hear that they are not alone with their experience, and that their feelings do not make them bad or wierd. That said, they do need to be safe, which is where parents come in.
Red Flags for Parents:
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.