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When Your Child Says, "I Want to Kill Myself"

The child is turning their anger against themselves.

Key points

  • Threats of suicide by children are cries for help that need to be taken seriously.
  • Children tend to become overwhelmed by their emotions, lack a sufficient perspective on life, and have less impulse control.
  • If a child, especially an older child, threatens suicide, a parent should try to pinpoint the reason and ask if they have a plan.

"I want to kill myself." These are the most terrifying words a parent can hear from a child at any age. Though these words always mean a child is distressed, the magnitude varies widely. Sometimes the words sound worse than they are, yet they must always be taken seriously. Let me explain.

Not too long ago, I received a phone call from the parents of a little 4-year-old girl. At nursery school, she had told the teachers, “I want to kill myself.” The teachers and the director were of course, very alarmed. They asked the parents for an immediate psychological evaluation of the child, and the parents turned to me.

When I met with the parents, I learned that there was a new baby in the household and it became evident that having a younger sibling was causing this little 4-year-old a great deal of distress. Prior to this event, she was generally a calm, easy-going child. Now she was hitting and biting and never listened to anything her parents said.

I met with the child alone and asked her what she meant when she said, “I want to kill myself.” It was clear that she actually didn't know what the words meant. (Maybe she had heard someone use this phrase at home or on TV.) But the sentiment was the same; she was indeed very distraught about family life.

I asked her if there is anything bothering her in the family. "My parents never have time for me. The baby cries all day long. I sit in my room waiting for Mommy and Daddy, but they never come,” she lamented. She was clearly upset that she had to share her parents’ attention with her brother. “They don’t love me anymore,” she whispered in my ear. I reassured her that her parents still loved her.

We talked about the sad and angry feelings older children naturally have when a new baby arrives, and I helped her to talk about her feelings. She was able to tell me that she was very angry. Getting this child to talk about her anger was crucial. At any age, when a child says, “I want to kill myself,” the child generally feels she cannot control the situation or the grown-ups, so she turns the anger against herself. (Mostly in words, generally, not in actions.)

This is actually the underlying cause of cutting, which has become such a popular outlet for kids to express themselves. The child cuts herself because it gives her a sense of power and control. Once a child begins to verbalize her emotions she is less likely to act out her feelings by hurting herself. This is why it is essential to take your child for professional help when they are depressed, cutting themself, or talking about suicidal ideations.

I asked this little girl if she would like to tell her parents how she felt. I placed her in between her parents on the couch. I helped her to tell her parents about her anger, fears, and sadness, and I assisted the parents in reassuring her of their love. When a child tells a parent what's bothering her and receives support, the child feels loved and no longer so alone.

We talked about how this child could let her parents know when she was unhappy at home and what she could say. She could tell them, “I’m angry,” “I feel left out,” or “I need attention,’” and they would help her.

Identifying the problem, helping the child to express her emotions, and establishing communication between parent and child was very helpful in this case, as it is for all families. They all left my office smiling.

Here are some additional tips for dealing with your child if they say, “I want to kill myself.”

If your child makes this statement always take them seriously, especially with older children who are savvier about what they mean and can find ways to hurt themselves. These words are a cry for help.

Always respond positively. Tell your child, “I love you so much and I would never want anything to happen to you. Let’s talk about whatever is bothering you, and I will help you." Even if you worry that they are manipulating you to get a pair of sneakers, because you said no, never say, “OK go ahead.”

Ascertaining the reason can be difficult. Often this phrase is connected with the word no. When your teen is frustrated because you said he could not go to a concert with his friends, he might feel devastated and consumed with rage. Feeling powerless to get what he wants he might say, “I’m going to kill myself.” After all, to children who experience their needs as urgent, it may feel like life and death.

If you know your child is upset because you refused a request, for instance, to let him drive your car, support his disappointment. Tell him “I know you’re upset. Then acknowledge his wish. You might say," I can see that you want to drive very badly," and explain why he can't. You might tell him, "I'm in a very big hurry, it's raining, and you just got your license." Coming up with a compromise solution that will ease the situation, for instance.,"I'll let you drive tomorrow if the weather is good,” can calm the situation down.

Talk about his choice of words. When he threatens suicide, ask him, "Do you really have thoughts about hurting yourself, or are you just angry that I wouldn’t let you go to the party? It's better to tell me you feel very angry, otherwise, I get worried that you will hurt yourself. If you ever feel like hurting yourself, tell me immediately. I love you and I don't want anything to happen to you.” If he's terribly distraught, question him about why he is so upset. Maybe he is afraid that if he doesn't go, he will lose his new friends. Or, maybe he feels you never allow him to go anywhere. It's always worth evaluating the situation and hearing his point of view, to support him or see if you need to make any adjustments in the family.

If you do not know the source of the problem, you might ask, “Did something happen that’s upsetting you? Did someone hurt your feelings? Did I do something that made you angry?” Getting your child to talk about his anger is crucial. If he can talk about his emotions and be supported, he will have less of a need to act out.

Ask your child if they have a plan. Children who are seriously considering suicide often fantasize about a way to do it. If they say, “I’ll take the pills in the medicine cabinet,” this is a serious alarm. It requires a trip to a mental health professional, as soon as possible. If your child is very depressed or you feel he might take action, you should consider taking them to an emergency room.

Keep in mind that adults often say, “I’m going to kill myself,” without any intention of following up on this. The adult is just extremely upset about not getting a promotion, losing a relationship, or not getting the job they badly wanted. With children, however, we need to be very proactive, because they tend to become overwhelmed by their emotions, lack a sufficient perspective on life, and have less impulse control.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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