My six-year-old says she wishes she was dead. What should I do?

Will acknowledging the feeling feed it? Send your queries to health@irishtimes.com

“The last time she said she did not want to be alive  was after falling out with a girl in school.” Photograph: Getty Images

“The last time she said she did not want to be alive was after falling out with a girl in school.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

My six-year-old daughter has begun speaking about “not wanting to be alive” in a distressed state. It can happen in the middle of a tantrum, when she is frustrated or very tired, or when she feels everyone is against her.

I don’t believe it’s a suicidal ideation, but more a communication of how bad she feels. The last time she did it was after falling out with a girl in school. She came home in a terrible mood, taking it out on everyone. When I challenged her she became really annoyed, saying that everyone was mean to her and that she “did not want to be alive”.

My question is: how should I respond to her. Do I acknowledge the feeling? Or will I be feeding into it? Should I give her examples of worse-off children (poor, starving, etc) and remind her that she should be grateful?

I have tried to get her to relax using mindfulness (which I did a course in and find useful), but she has no desire to do it.

When overwhelmed by upset emotion or in the height of a meltdown lots of young children will say they wish were dead. While this is distressing to hear as a parent, more often than not this statement does not represent an intention to harm themselves and is simply an expression of just how bad they are feeling at that time.

It can be a little akin to a child who is very angry saying to another, “I’m going to kill you” – this does not necessarily mean that they will carry out any attack.

Acknowledging feelings

When responding to such statements, I think it is very important to acknowledge the feelings your child has. Saying something that accurately names how she is feeling will do much to alleviate her distress and make her feel understood.

For example, you might say: “You sound really frustrated/upset at the moment” or “When you are upset, it is easy to feel like everyone is fighting with you.”

Or you can directly pick up on her language when she says that she “does not wish to be alive”: “What makes you say something like that? What is upsetting you so much?”

Take time to explore what is at the bottom of your daughter’s upset – “Tell me what is going on for you . . . did something bother you at school?” The goal is to get her to open up about what happened and what is on her mind. This will make her feel better and help you understand.

Soothing your daughter

If your daughter is very upset, she might need to be comforted to help her manage. As well as acknowledging her feelings verbally, she might need a hug to comfort her. You might say: “You sound very upset, come on over here and let’s have a big hug.” Letting her have a good cry on your shoulder as she vents and you listen to her feelings may be just what she needs.

Correcting her behaviour

If your daughter is screaming or shouting and taking out her feelings on others, then it is also appropriate to correct her for this. For example, you might say: “I know you upset, but please talk to me . . . you must not scream/fight with your brother.”

The goal is to help her learn to use words to tell you how she is feeling, rather than taking her feelings out on you. Sometimes it is important to take a break in the height of a meltdown: “Let’s take a break for a minute, and we can talk when you feel calmer”.

You can also consider correcting her language when she says “she does not want to be alive”, by saying something like: “That is a silly thing to say . . . you have so many happy things in your life,” though potentially this could feed into it. So it is a judgment call about what is the best response.

Helping her calm down

Mindfulness is one of a range of strategies that can be useful to help children and adults calm down. It does take a bit of practice and is only likely to work in a high-intensity emotional situation if you and your daughter do it regularly (eg, listening to a mindfulness CD as part of the bedtime routine).

Once it becomes a habit, then you can suggest your daughter practises this when she is very upset: “Let’s pause now and take a few breaths . . . now tell me how you feel.”

Other strategies that might work include suggesting physical activity, such as taking 10 minutes on the trampoline or going for a walk together around the block or down the garden as you talk. Distraction can also work by perhaps introducing a relaxing activity such as watching TV or listening to music for a few minutes before you talk about things.

Problem-solving

Once your daughter is a bit calmer, then you can try to problem-solve with her and address some of the things that are causing her upset: “So what has been happening at school?” Take time to explore solutions with her: “What can you say to that girl when she does that?” or “Who can you ask to help you?”

You may also be able to help her by making contact with the teacher or changing routines at home to help her feel less stressed. 

Finally, if you remain concerned or if your daughter continues to be distressed, or if you feel she genuinely wants to harm herself, do seek further professional help and support.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book, Bringing Up Happy Confident Children, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie.

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