Q: Last week, in the midst of a terrible tantrum, my six-year-old daughter screamed, “I want to die. I want to kill myself.” She has never said that before, and I don’t know where it came from, but it really unsettled me. She soon calmed down and was fine, but she said the same thing a few days later. What is happening here and should I be worried?
A: Rather than a serious wish to die, when kids this age say they want to die or to kill themselves, what they are usually trying to say is that they are having feelings that are overwhelming and they need their parent’s help in managing them. Your daughter’s tantrum suggests she is having difficulty coping with emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, sadness or anger. Once your daughter has calmed down, talk over what just happened without judgment, accusations or criticism. You can help her by labelling her feelings so she begins to have a language to express them rather than acting out. Over time, you can help her to make sense of her feelings by working together to understand the triggers. Often statements are more helpful than questions. For example, you could say something like “You are feeling frustrated because what you are trying to make isn’t turning out the way you wanted it to. Can I help you?” You might suggest alternate ways to respond and even role-play the situations to arrive at positive outcomes. By doing this, you will help her to develop the capacity to anticipate her feelings and to solve the problems she faces in more constructive ways.