Suicidal thoughts and feelings build in your children. Anger and fear fester, negative perceptions and strong emotions accumulate, and your child’s perceived lack of control grows. This building internal turmoil creates intense negative energy that boils up until suicide becomes an attractive solution. It starts as a possibility and slowly becomes your child’s first choice.
The young person thinks about suicide more and more. He considers it and then rejects the idea. Finally, he reconsiders it, struggles to find other answers, and comes back to suicide as the only relief from his anger, fear, pain, his emptiness. It becomes his final way of assuming power, of taking control of his world.
About 80% of the time, children tell someone about their thoughts and talk about their solution. If they are believed, whomever they tell can and sometimes does get help for them. Far too often, though, no one takes children’s talking about suicide seriously.
Children do not normally say things like, “I wish I were dead,” “I would be better off dead,” or “I think I will just kill myself.” It is not true youngsters often say those kinds of things or are just joking around when they say them. If someone asks them about it, they often do say they were not serious and were just joking around. They may be embarrassed, may want to hide their real feelings, or may not be comfortable talking about suicide with whomever is present. Still, it is no joking matter and they likely were not just joking.
Your child may bring up suicide in a joking way or may bring it up in a serious way. He may seem quite depressed or may seem fairly normal for him. Whatever his mood, the need is to respond to what he is saying. If you are talking with him, ask, “What are you thinking about doing? It feels to me like you may be thinking about killing yourself. Am I on track or off base?” Your child may spontaneously start talking about suicide, someone who killed himself, or ways to kill oneself. However he discloses his thoughts, the opportunity to help is right then.
If he says he was just kidding, say, “Let’s think about some better ways to get your feelings out. When you joke about killing yourself, what’s your message? I’ll bet it has something to do with feeling upset, something to do with feeling angry and maybe a little afraid and a lot to do with feeling hopeless. Let’s talk about it if you will. What are you thinking and feeling when you joke about killing yourself?”
Talking about suicide helps. It neither makes things worse nor makes it more likely the young person will kill himself. You can say, “I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for both of us. Can we talk about what’s happening?”
It is possible your child is threatening suicide to get your attention but not very likely. Even if he is seeking your attention, he can back himself into a corner if he keeps it up. He says it so much everyone stops taking him seriously. He has to take it one step further if only to save face. The next step for him is actually trying to kill himself; and he might just succeed, even if only by accident.
Without a doubt, it was very serious the first time he threatened. If he is dead, whether he was serious or just wanting attention no longer matters. There is not another chance to take him seriously.
What is going on if your child uses threats of suicide to get attention? There are many possibilities, none of which is good. Say, “A part of me believes you want to kill yourself and the other part thinks you are using threatening suicide to get my attention. Either way, I’m very concerned. Can we talk about the getting attention side?” The conversation goes on for a little while and you then say, “Threatening is an effective way to get attention. You certainly got mine. It worked. Here’s my problem. When you use suicide to get my attention, it scares me and is a little frustrating. I like to pay attention to you so you don’t have to scare me to get my attention. It’s yours. I have some ideas but want to hear your ideas first. What are some other ways you could let me know when you want my attention, want me to take you more seriously, want me to understand how bad it is for you?” You also might spend some time thinking about why getting your attention is so difficult for your child. That likely points toward other problems.
Keep this focus. Suicidal thoughts and feelings are always serious. Your youngster needs specialized help immediately, in addition to your support, involvement, and sensitivity. Further, the crisis has not passed as soon as your child’s thoughts turn to other subjects or as soon as his mood brightens. Among many needs, your child must develop better ways of communicating his feelings, solving his problems, and getting others to understand and help. The underlying distress continues past the here-and-now symptoms.