by Dr. Dathan Paterno
“I’m going to kill myself!” Those have to be just about the most terrifying words that a parent can hear from their child. Variations on a theme include:
“I wish I were dead.” “I wish I had never been born.” “Why don’t you just kill me?” “I am going to kill my brother/sister!”
Today, children are suspended from school for saying such intemperate things—or even drawing pictures that depict violent fantasies. They have to go through a mental health assessment to determine whether they are safe to return from school. Most of this is nonsense, since children are prone to “go nuclear” with their language when they are upset and are not being heard with conventional language.
The fact is that the vast majority of children who say these things do not actually wish to commit suicide or otherwise die, wish they had never been born, or wish to murder someone. While this kind of language does require immediate and sincere attention, the fortunate fact is that very few children who make these kinds of statements actually follow through on them.
Please do not think I am so naïve to believe that no child is truly suicidal or does not wish to bring one of these darkest realities to fruition. I have witnessed a good many children attempt suicide; I know first-hand that some children go to that darkest of places. However, even many of those children’s attempts to act out their pitch-black fantasies would have been averted if the adults in their lives had paid close attention to the signs that their children put in their line of vision.
If your child says something like that, it is critical that you avoid acting based on emotionality. The instinctual part of you is highly emotional, protective, and defensive. Tell that part of you to take a back seat for a moment. The first thing you should do is presume that there is a good reason why Junior has elevated the language to the nuclear stage and that if you listen carefully, you and the child can figure it out. “I want to kill myself” is usually a highly creative and effective metaphor for “I am really miserable and I need you understand. When I just say ‘I’m sad’, you don’t listen or understand, so I have to talk suicide for you to really get it!”
Here’s a good response: “Wow, it sounds like you’re trying to get me to see just how upset you are about something. Can you tell me how bad you really feel and what it is about?”
Most of the time, your child will walk right into that open door and will express his/her angry, confused, sad, frustrated, hopeless, or overwhelmed feelings. You can then validate the feelings the child has; what parent can’t understand fright, sadness, anger, overwhelm, and confusion? If you can validate your child’s feelings, then he or she will feel heard and understood, removing the need to use metaphor to describe the pain. Essentially, if a lower level of communication does the trick, the child will not need to resort to more intense metaphor.
Pay attention, parents. Your child is speaking to you. If you do not listen, you will invite your child to raise the ante, or in some cases, go nuclear.
Dr. Paterno is available for appearances, speaking engagements and lectures. For information, please contact ImaginePublicity at firstname.lastname@example.org or imaginepublicity.com