When your child says he wants to die

The February hanging death of 10-year-old Aquan Lewis of Evanston, which, as of this writing, is officially ruled a suicide, rattled a lot of Chicago area parents, including this one.


Parents are asking: 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 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.


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 were 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 imitate 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 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.


During conversations with your child, it can be helpful to remind him of times he’s felt badly about something, how the situation resolved and how his bad feelings eventually subsided. Helping him recall ways he problem-solved past pains can remind him of the skills he already has for dealing with present ones.


Don’t hesitate to ask for help


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, 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 www.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 or dial 911.


Sadly, some suicides seem to occur without any obvious warnings or threats, which can make us feel so helpless as parents.


What if you have a gut feeling that something just isn’t right? Then ask. It can be a tremendous relief for a child to be allowed to discuss the troubling feelings and thoughts he has.


Red flags for parents


• Remarkable changes in behavior, sleep habits or appetite


• Giving away favorite personal items


• Uncharacteristic moodiness, teariness or irritability


• Withdrawing from friends or activities


• A drop in grades


• Substance abuse


Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia. She has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at ChicagoParent.com.


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