“Sarah McQuilkin says she knew something was wrong with her adopted daughter when she was 2. Now, at 7, Sarita says, ‘Mommy, the world would be better off without me.'”
One of the most unsettling things someone can encounter is a suicidal child who isn’t even out of elementary school. I’ve dealt with such kids a few times before, and there are no words to describe the tingles down your spine one gets upon hearing a baby-faced 7-year-old boy or 9-year-old girl talk about how they wished they were dead. For a child just beginning life to be speaking about their desire for death is a shock to normal human senses.
Kids who want to die
Suicidal thoughts among prepubescent children are rather rare, but they do occur, sometimes as early as preschool. Not all children who express suicidal ideation have psychological problems, however. There are several reasons a child may make suicidal gestures, some of which you need to worry about, and some that can be taken far less seriously.
Suicidal thoughts in disturbed children
Most commonly, suicidal thoughts in young kids emerge from a child who is seriously disturbed, particularly those kids who have suffered injuries to attachment – adopted children, those who have dealt with a parent’s abandonment or a traumatizing divorce, or those who have spent time in the foster care system. (See our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross-Comparison, for more information on injuries to attachment.) Because these type of injuries disrupt a child’s basic foundation in life, they can cause immense problems and leave a child struggling with the sense that they aren’t wanted or don’t belong, which can lead to suicidal gestures.
Although successful suicides among children this age are rare, thoughts of this nature still need to be taken seriously. Even a small child is capable of hanging themselves or swallowing something they shouldn’t, and every year there are typically a handful of successful suicides among 9-, 8-, or 7-year-old kids, and occasionally a child even younger than this. More importantly, suicidal ruminations are only going to grow more pronounced as a child ages unless these underlying issues are addressed. When a child in elementary school is expressing a desire to die that emerges out of psychological or emotional distress it means there are underlying issues which have to be addressed.
If your child falls into one of these categories or seems to have emotional disturbances that are leading to suicidal statements or behavior, we strongly urge you to seek professional outpatient help. It’s been our experience that inpatient treatment, such as admission to a children’s psychiatric hospital, tends to do more harm than good, especially among foster kids and adoptees, whom sadly, are often the most likely to receive such measures. Taking a child with emotional problems that stem from attachment injuries and then institutionalizing them is like trying to fight fire by dousing it with gasoline. Even when it only occurs for short periods of time, such measures result in an even more insecure attachment (which will give rise to more suicidal thoughts in the future) and are thus counterproductive. More often than not, it starts a repeating cycle that escalates a child’s problems rather than solving them. And if you must go this route, you need to be at this facility with them whenever possible. If there’s even the slightest hint that they’re being unloaded to someone else because you can’t deal with their problems, rest assured: you’re not treating the child, you’re only aggravating the primary problem and postponing the inevitable.
Suicidal gestures among children dealing with death
“At some time in our lives we all experience morbid thoughts, thoughts about our own death and the impact our death would have on those around us. Children begin to have these thoughts at an early age, usually around age four, and then again at different times as they mature. Usually these thoughts are transient and not likely to be associated with suicidal behavior. In rare cases, children might be preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying when a grandparent dies, even if a pet dies. They want to join the departed one in heaven. I have interviewed some very young children who have made primitive suicidal gestures for this reason.”
– Dr. Andrew Slaby & Lily Frank Garfinkel (1994, p. 6)
Another common source of suicidal thoughts in preteen children is bereavement. To a young child who is struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one, killing themselves can seem like a perfectly reasonable fix that will bring them what they want most: to be reunited with the deceased.
While these thoughts don’t arise because a child is mentally disturbed, they are nonetheless potentially dangerous and need to be taken seriously. For one, a child who is grieving is also a temporarily unhappy child. If they lost someone close to them, they may be distraught, miserable, and at times wishing they were dead too. Second, this is a case where a child’s age and naivety can work against them. Young children can still be fooled into believing 100% in Santa Claus, after all. So unlike adults and older youth, they haven’t developed a healthy sense of uncertainty about what happens once you die, which can serve as a significant barrier to suicide. They are more concrete in their views of heaven and the afterlife, and so dying so that you can be with mommy may seem no riskier than getting in the car and driving to someone’s house to be with them.
“‘I’ll see Grandma up in heaven’ is something we’ve heard from more than one child under the age of ten who attempted suicide,” write Slaby & Garfinkel. They add that “a higher rate of suicide is found in children who have a very concrete and fundamentally understood belief in heaven than in those who do not.” (ibid, p. 171) How much you need to worry depends on the degree of the loss, the extent to which the child is distraught over it, and the nature or frequency to which they express suicidal desires.
Children who make alarming statements in response to exposure to death or community violence
Other children may make ambiguous statements in response to exposure to death; such as one boy who said to his teacher, “I want to be dead when I grow up” after having witnessed violence in his neighborhood. (Murphy, Pynoos & James, 1997, p. 239) These typically aren’t legitimate suicidal ruminations, but more a sign of a child who is struggling to process what they saw. It might be a legitimate observation from the child’s perspective: A youngster who sees older youth get shot in his neighborhood might erroneously assume that this is the natural course in life as one grows older. So in these instances, such statements usually indicate a child who is trying to cope with anxiety about death or grapple with death concepts. These issues should be addressed, but suicide is not typically an authentic concern.
Threats made for dramatic effect
Children sometimes utter things like “I wish I were dead!” or “I hate life!” or “why don’t you just kill me then!” in response to a parent’s discipline attempts. Generally speaking, these statements are made in frustration for shock value and are not a sign of actual suicidal desires. The child is merely going for dramatic effect.
Parents must use their own judgment in assessing these types of statements. Such things said during a heated argument or in response to discipline are likely just emotional protests, whereas these same statements said during times of calm may be a sign of problems. Here are some other guidelines you should go by:
- Generic statements (I wish I were dead!) usually do not indicate problems, whereas specific statements (I’m going to go to my room and hang myself!) are more likely to indicate a problem.
- Generic statements given occasionally are usually no big deal, whereas such statements given often may be cause for concern.
DES Suicide & suicidal thoughts in young children: learn why kids in grade school or younger would want to kill themselves, & what to do with kids who want to die.