Vail health column: Helping hurting kids who are struggling with life changes
Not often but not infrequently in my role as a therapist, I hear, “My 8-year-old said he didn’t want to be alive anymore.” Sometimes, this kind of statement made by a child is a one-off, an exaggeration of how a child is feeling because he or she was caught in a lie or is embarrassed.
Yet if parents hear statements about wanting to die frequently, coupled with other changes in a child’s mood and personality, it may be a reflection of distress he or she is experiencing. Children in elementary school are at a low risk for attempting and completing suicide. However, when an elementary-aged child makes statements about wanting to die or kill his or herself, it is a signal to pay attention to what is going on in that child’s world.
STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT
At this age, children are straddling two stages of development, which makes suicide and distress difficult to understand, both by themselves and with their parents. The first stage is the one they are trying to leave behind, one in which they only understand life from their own perspective. Children may understand what death is but are unable to grasp the finality of dying. The next stage children move into marks a change in thinking, one measured by what is experienced with their five senses. Try challenging a child in this stage about something they know to be true and you will have taken on the Herculean task of changing their mind.
STEPS TO PROMOTE WELLBEING
Add bullying at school or at home and the child starts to believe every negative message that is hurled their way. While stepping into a child’s distress is scary, there are a number of steps parents can take to support a child’s wellbeing.
• Be aware of warning signs — Aside from actual statements about wanting to die, there are other warning signs that may be more indicative of distress. Watch out for drastic changes in mood or behavior that are not typical for your child. It may look like aggression toward others or withdrawing from the family. Other indicators for risk of suicide in children are signs of depression, including changes in sleep or eating patterns.
• Create a safe space — A child’s ability to deal with stress is not as developed as an adult’s. Feeling overwhelmed can be triggered by a space that reminds him or her of a stressful event; thus, it’s important when you start to talk to your child about distressing events that he or she feels safe and calm. For example, if your child is getting bullied at school, it may not be best to talk to him or her on the ride home when he or she is still stressed out about the day.
• Listen and ask — When children are feeling safe and begin to talk, it is important to listen and offer empathy. Remember that children at this age may not believe that you or anyone else can understand or even handle what they are feeling. Respond calmly to what they have to say and point out what emotions they might be having. Don’t tell them they are wrong for feeling the way they feel; this only cements their belief that they are facing it alone.
• Open the door —Create a regular time to talk about the feelings and experiences your child is having. Educate yourself about how your child behaves at school, and talk to teachers and counselors about what you see at home. Learn ways to help your child cope with stressors at school and home, and teach these skills to your child.
• Seek help — If there is imminent danger, always call emergency services. If you see the warning signs and there is no slowing down of statements about death and dying, reach out to local mental health professionals for help. If you don’t know where to start, reach out to the school and ask for help.
Parents can, through early intervention, address and alleviate a child’s distress. Parents possess the greatest amount of information about a child’s needs and behaviors, so use this knowledge and the many resources available to you to help your child as only a parent can.
Jarid Rollins is a licensed mental health therapist for Mind Springs Health in Aspen and can be reached at 970-920-5555. Mind Springs Health is the largest provider of mental health and addiction therapy on the Western Slope, with 13 outpatient locations and the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City.