As parents, we invest a lot of time and effort to ensure our kids get the best we can offer and to hear our child saying “I wish I were dead.” brings a terrible feeling to any parent. Why would a child make this statement and how should you respond?
However, let’s put a few things into perspective. First, a young child doesn’t fully grasp the concept of death. If you ask them what it means to be dead, they might say “gone, disappear, go to sleep” or other creative responses. Young children typically cannot comprehend the consequences of their threats, and very young children lack the ability to understand the permanence of death.
That said, I’m not suggesting you dismiss your child’s statement. Instead, investigate what your child means. Sometimes kids lack more sophisticated ways of describing and managing troubling feelings. For example, he might be feeling overwhelmed by a situation, he might be trying to get your attention, or he might be feeling angry, frustrated or ashamed, but not sure how to express it.
Young kids often find it hard to express big feelings. Help them understand and put it into words.
8 Ways to respond when your child says, “I wish I were dead” or “I want to die.”
Paraphrase – If you know what the cause of your child’s big feeling might be, name and describe the feeling appropriately to them. Example: You child disagreed with a sibling or friend and said, “I wish I were dead.” You can say: “You must be feeling angry right now because…”
If you don’t know what the issue might be, ask questions. You can say: “I noticed you said you wish you were dead when you got in the car after school. I’m interested to know what could have happened to make you feel such a big feeling.”
Look for meaning
Sometimes, you can get to the root of the matter by asking a child how he thinks things would improve if he died. For example, he might say: “I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore.” “I wouldn’t have to live with my sister.” “I wouldn’t have to talk to Sam ever again.” Once you find what the problem is, you can work on a solution together.
Give your attention
If you think your child wants your attention, try to create quality time. You can say: “Sometimes we all have big feelings. I want you to know that I’m here for you. You can count on me.”
Watch your reactions
Children imitate our ways of coping with stress and life’s difficulties, so bear this in mind if you tend to threaten to kill yourself or even playfully say “I want to die” when you’re angry or frustrated.
Name the feeling
Young children might not have the words to express their feeling. Proactively teaching your child feeling words, how it feels in the body and how it looks like can help them express themselves better next time.
Remember the difficult times
For example, remind your child of times he felt bad about something, how the situation resolved and how his bad feelings eventually subsided. Helping him recall ways he problem-solved past issues can remind him of the skills he already has for dealing with present ones.
If you are concerned that there might be underlining issues or if your child persists in saying he wishes he was dead, seek professional advice.
Signs to look for:
- Changes in behaviour, sleep patterns or appetite
- Giving away favourite personal items
- Uncharacteristic moodiness, tiredness, or irritability
- Unexplained crying
- Withdrawing from friends or activities
- Drop in grades
The important thing here is to help your child learn more productive ways to manage and express what upsets him. Something must be disturbing him greatly—something about which he feels he has little control—for him to resort to words that command such attention.
You can use the Superpower Kids Right Now I Feel printable to help your child understand and name feelings.
AMA: 6 Ways to Talk About Big Feelings