Did he really mean what he said?
November 3, 2012 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Last night, in the middle of a huge tantrum, my six year old son said "If you don't let me [do x], I will kill myself." Obviously, we are freaked out. How freaked out should we be?

Other data points:
- He's in process of being diagnosed with ... something. Maybe ADHD. Maybe Autism Spectrum. Maybe some kind of other social processing disorder. But nothing is clear cut that makes you say "Oh, he's ________". So we wait (until probably late December) for all the testing to be complete.
- He has massive tantrums about things, sometimes. (Last night's was about being removed by his father from a PTO event where he was being physically disruptive by playing a rough game.) He's threatened to run away, or to "never love us again", which we slot as "typical kid threats" but we've never heard anything like this.
- In the moment, his father ignored it (I -- his mother -- wasn't there.) and continued to discipline him (by removing him from the room and getting him to calm down) as he normally would.
- He understands death, and has told us in the past (in context) that he doesn't ever want to die and be away from us.
- We have no idea where he might have heard that specific phrase.

I'm halfway to believing it was a threat on the level of "I'll run away from home and you'll never see me again" but the other half of my brain sees something darker. Neither of us have spoken with him at all about it, and when asked in general terms about his tantrum ("anger event") he just says he's very embarrassed and won't discuss it further.

Should we talk with him about this? Bring it up with his psychologist/special educators? Just disregard it and move on? Has your young child ever said anything like this to you.

I want to stress that he's not normally an out-of-control child. Whatever his learning issue is, it's so subtle that it's taken to the middle of first grade to even begin to be an issue. He does have strong emotions. This seems so out of character for him .... and yet .....
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to your specific situation, but I have a child on the autism spectrum who has used similarly inflammatory language in moments of extreme emotion. He has never had a plan, or means, to carry his threats out - it's just his way of saying "I'm really angry right now". Definitely mention it to the psychologist the next time you see them.

In the meantime, check out Think:Kids and the book The Explosive Child for a useful perspective on parenting kids with challenging behaviors.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

If it helps, I used to threaten to hold my breath until I died when my parents did things I didn't like when I was about that age. Sometimes I even tried. I didn't want to die, I just wanted my parents to freak out and say they loved me and didn't want me to die and would let me stay up late / have more dessert / get a pony if only I wouldn't kill myself.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:54 PM on November 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

Definitely do research into this and find out what the experts and parents of kids with similar problems say about how to deal with his problems.

I think my own approach would be to talk to him about what he can and can't do to express himself when he's angry or upset, saying things like "If Daddy or I threatened to kill ourselves when we got angry with you, how would that make you feel? It would scare you wouldn't it?" and suggesting more constructive things he could say when angry, and doing a little role playing so he can practice saying them.
posted by orange swan at 5:59 PM on November 3, 2012

You should mention it to his psychologist and provide the context that he's deeply embarrassed about it.

I'm leaning toward it being a kid's tantrum where lots of things get said because the child doesn't have a way to communicate his emotions. Me telling you that doesn't help. An experienced professional who knows your child can help put this in context.
posted by 26.2 at 6:11 PM on November 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I doubt he meant it. I work in an ER and I screen a lot of psych patients and see a lot of suicide attempts. I have never seen a suicide attempt in a kid his age, they are extremely rare, and even the suicidal ideations that I have seen around that age typically have a very troubled history of violent and disturbing behavior (i.e. self harm, hurting or threatening family members, hurting or killing family pets etc). It sounds like your son just said something in the heat of the moment.

That being said, I don't care what the person's age or what the context is, always report talk about self harm or suicide to a psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:36 PM on November 3, 2012 [14 favorites]

I used that "threat" when I was around that age, and there was nothing actually to it. Like Jacquilynne, I was just trying to get attention.
posted by chudmonkey at 7:00 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

This sounds like my office manager's kid. He is freaky brilliant, ADD and on the autism spectrum, and definitely reacts that type of way. I concur it was simply your child's way to express his very strong emotion. And perhaps to freak you out, and it worked.

I am not saying your child has either disorder, either. Smart kids who have stronger than average emotions say things. I doubt very seriously this is anything specific to worry about. Besides, you are already in the process of getting him evaluated to help him with whatever he might be dealing with, so do go ahead and mention this but I imagine you will be reassured.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:19 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Embarrassingly enough, I threatened to kill myself with a steak knife when I was that age because I wasn't getting my way. I was diagnosed with mental illness as a young adult and have had suicidal thoughts for more than twenty years at this point but looking back at the steak knife incident I was definitely just being a over-dramatic kid.
posted by crankylex at 7:31 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

There usually isn't any real danger here. The best response is to calmly, firmly, let the kid know you love him and that killing himself would NOT be OK at all. Then ignore that kind of comment completely -- save your attention for when he expresses himself more appropriately. If you really do think he has a plan or is in imminent danger, take him to your local ER for a crisis psych eval, or call the police to take him.

I get this exact question about three to five times a month and that is my standard answer.
posted by PsychoTherapist at 8:21 PM on November 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

i agree with a lot that has already been said. i'd add: ask him how he'd do it. i've heard somewhere that asking that kind of question doesn't increase the chance of suicide, but anyone, please correct me if i'm wrong. as long as he doesn't have a specific plan that would 1) be definitely fatal, 2) really hard for you to stop him, then i think you're ok.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:26 PM on November 3, 2012

It seems worthwhile to note that our culture doesn't always take suicide seriously: sometimes it's a joke about how frustrating something is, as in "If I have to skip lunch one more time this month to go do some more stupid paperwork at the town hall I'm going to blow my brains out."

So it's quite possible that this is just an expression of extreme frustration he's picked up somewhere without understanding the real import of it.
posted by XMLicious at 8:40 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Excuse my ignorance, but what is a PTO event? Personal time off? (Google thinks it's Power Takeoff or Please Turn Over.)

Anyway, anger at any age is all about not feeling in control. Emotional manipulation is a tactic to try to gain that control. That's what this sounds like to me. That said, context and personality are both immensely important, so any 3rd person perspective on a secondhand retelling should be taken with a grain of salt. Misinterpreting either can be a problem. If you respond inappropriately you could reinforce the idea that emotional manipulation is effective or, just as bad if not worse, that he really doesn't have any control.

Handled properly, these episodes are opportunities for your son to practice the single most important life skill: mindfulness. Through this, one learns that that controlling oneself effectively is the most appropriate way to get a realistic grasp on the range of results that are possible in a given situation, and achieve the most desirable of these.

I take the reversal of your son's feelings (from anger to embarrassment) in a short period of time as a positive thing, as it indicates a healthy self-awareness after the episode has played itself out.

My impulse is to suggest that you be very present to these situations as they unfold, and try to pinpoint where he is emotionally when he starts going off the rails behaviorally. Do not fail to take note of your own emotional state as well. If you find that you are being swept up in an emotional storm (feeling public embarrassment, for instance, or anger of your own, or what-have-you) then in your reactions you may well be contributing to your son's difficulty. The key is to teach self-reflection, and you can't do that unless you are practicing it yourself.

Once you've confirmed to yourself that you are sufficiently mindful of your own responses, hopefully you will find yourself able to gently but insistently guide your son to being present to himself in the moments in which these episodes occur instead of only afterwards. Then he will be able to make better choices. By gaining the ability to talk through one's most intense feelings, he has already achieved the basics of self-mastery.

Of all the things to be worried about, I would probably be least worried that my six-year-old was seriously going to kill himself. That's virtually unheard of. But he could most certainly harm himself trying to convince you that he means it.

Having said all this, bear in mind that I have no kids and only somewhat remember being one. Moreover, I have never personally threatened or attempted suicide. So what the hell do I know, really?
posted by perspicio at 9:02 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Charlie Brown says it, Squidward says it, I don't understand why anyone would put that vocabulary in children's shows, but it is there. And now every child in America has that idea percolating in their heads. Many will not be affected by it at all. Many will. Do be concerned and if your son has ever watched Spongebob or a Peanuts cartoon then understand that he is affected by what he watches and monitor it more carefully in the future.

And don't let him get his way when he says it or he will continue to say it. Sounds like Dad did just the right thing.
posted by myselfasme at 9:05 PM on November 3, 2012

Emotional dysregulation can result in dramatic responses (anger, threats, etc). I would bring it up with the psych because it will help with the diagnosis. Also you need specific advice from them regarding how to help him manage his emotions more appropriately. And for them to do that, they need the context (his threat, his embarrassment).
posted by heyjude at 9:08 PM on November 3, 2012

PTO = Parent Teacher Organization. It could've been a Halloween or fall carnival, something like that.

I've seen some of my friends kids say this. Usually the really smart ones who know it will get them some extra attention.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:25 PM on November 3, 2012

You should definitely mention it to his doctors but I wouldn't be too freaked. What kind of media is he exposed to? Could he possibly have seen something where suicide was a theme? Its also possible he's picked it up from another child (or adult!) who has said something similar - possibly as XMLicious in a jokey way? I doubt he really understands suicide at that age. Its more like parrots - they can say the words and they can understand the context in which they should be used but they don't understand what they're saying.
posted by missmagenta at 1:04 AM on November 4, 2012

My neurotypical 5yr old does this, although it takes the form of "I'm going to diiiiiie" and "you're trying to kiiiiill me!" over, say, a broken Lego object, or time to get off the computer. He doesn't have cursing in his vocabulary but he does have a very highly developed sense of DRAMAZ so idk... It's ridiculous and hard to hear but not worrisome.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:01 AM on November 4, 2012

I was seriously suicidal by the end of elementary school. It wasn't a threat -- in fact I hid it from people because I was afraid they would stop me. I think the fact that he told you is actually a good sign, a sign of trust. He's not making suicidal plans and keeping them from you.
posted by 3491again at 4:36 AM on November 4, 2012

Please accept my empathy - my 8 1/2 yr old child has done this, and it first started around that age. She, too, is "quirky" and currently we're looking at it as anxiety, and CBT is working. There may be other things, but we've seen progress this year treating it as such, and are hoping that's it.

For example, during her last massive tantrum (last year), over taking blood tests as part of working out a diagnosis (possible seizures for the times when she blanks out in a weird way), she threatened to run out into the road and kill herself. It's scary, and hard to hear. I feel for you.

Should we talk with him about this? Bring it up with his psychologist/special educators? Just disregard it and move on? Has your young child ever said anything like this to you.

You might want to talk with him about this, but think about whether or not you'd like it to be a conversation guided by a professional. I'd say, to his educators, no -- a friend who's a school social worker has warned us how information travels; our own is great at guiding us on how to keep things private as far as her records go. But psychologist/doctors, yes. It's part of what may get him accelerated on any waiting lists you may be on. We talk about it with her to work on her personal responsibility and empathy and self-control. And because for us, it's not just a one-time thing. Beyond the suicide talk, two times now she's run out of the house upset, and when things have calmed down, we've had to talk about safer ways to deal with that urge because of various urban issues - cars, dogs in our neighbourhood who chase kids etc. She knew she needed a pressure-release valve, she didn't know where to find it. Those are the things that at their age, they can't figure out for themselves.

As you said perfectly, it seems we both have kids with strong emotions. When mine has said such frightening things, I viewed it as "this feeling is too big for me to handle" and think your husband was right to ignore it at the time, and to work on getting him to calm down. We try to deal with the underlying feelings, and downplay the hurtful words. It's like she's trying to put her pain on others so she doesn't have to bear it all herself. As adults, we can take it; and we need to help her. Figuring out how is hard, and figuring out what falls under normal parenting and what falls under dealing with her quirks is what we needed to learn. It sounds like that's what you're doing.

We had to learn not to escalate the discipline during the tantrum - she's not hearing it or in control anyway, and the primary thing is to calm her down and remind her she's loved and safe. Later on we can discuss consequences. They still exist, because of course kids will attempt to manipulate and often these tantrums have been in response to discipline - but it all needs to be done when we're all feeling in control of ourselves. It looks like you and your husband are already there. As recommended above, the Explosive Child is also good for this. A friend with a daughter whose temperament and behaviour is similar to mine recommended the Highly Sensitive Child, and I plan to explore it because it sounds like it ticks some boxes too.

I'll also urge you to find support where you can for yourself - other parents who've negotiated diagnoses, systems and situations. Thankfully our school has ASD classes, and plenty of students in the typical classrooms with varying quirks from Aspberger's to behaviour issues, and the other students and teachers are amazingly accommodating to all of the kids with stuff going on -- but as a parent, it's a lot on your plate and it's fatiguing. It's good to talk to other parents who can recommend books, therapists, classes and courses. The other night a friend who's experienced similar things with her 5 year old daughter told me she used to think that what we were going through with our daughter was because she was "a spoiled only child with an indulgent mom," but now she can see that sometimes there's something more, and she apologized. I feel like there are dozens of people like that in our life, and more in public, and I'm grateful for any kindness. I'll wish for the best for you all, and I really feel for you. Yes, typically children say all sorts of things - but not all of them will make you almost believe them.
posted by peagood at 7:17 AM on November 4, 2012

There's a certain age kids hit where they come to understand the concept of death and its emotional importance to others. He's probably seen just enough tv/movies to grasp that death and killing is serious and important. Kids also have a tendency to run straight for, what is in their minds, their biggest bargaining chip.

The young son of some friends of ours once threatened, in all seriousness, "Make me pancakes...Or I'll kill you!"
posted by Thorzdad at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

- He's in process of being diagnosed with ... something. Maybe ADHD. Maybe Autism Spectrum. Maybe some kind of other social processing disorder. But nothing is clear cut that makes you say "Oh, he's ________".

No, you don't need to be freaked out. And yes, by all means you should call his psychiatrist or psychologist and discuss -- and get used to conferring with her when/if similarly puzzling issues/symptoms/behaviors come up. The diagnosis that you're seeking will hopefully help with choosing appropriate therapies if needed, but "Oh, he's ____! and therefore his symptoms are going to be X, Y, and Z and solved thusly!" rarely happens in real life. I'm speaking from my experience as a parent of a child who had psychiatric/learning issues that manifested at that age, and from knowing lots of parents/kids in similar situations. A good collaborative relationship with your son's providers is ultimately going to be more important than the diagnosis.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:43 AM on November 4, 2012

Kids do look for buttons to push, and shocking statements are one way to do that. My kid has tearfully proclaimed YOU DON'T NEED ME! when he wasn't getting his way. Which makes no sense, but he heard somewhere. You've gotten lots of good advice about telling his therapist but remember smart kids will repeat things they picked up like that...I did it as a kid too.
posted by emjaybee at 4:02 PM on November 4, 2012

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