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
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
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
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
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.
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