I came across an advice column in The Guardian recently that weighed on my heart. A mother wrote in to ask for advice because her 10-year-old son had been talking about how nobody cared about him, he wished he’d never been born and his life wasn’t worth living. He had also, she said, mentioned suicide in “non-specific ways.”
As parents, we desperately want to believe that our children could not possibly die by suicide—or even be contemplating it. But suicide rates keep climbing, and that column got me wondering: At what point are our kids feeling sad in the moment and need some extra love and attention, and when do the concerns become deeper and warrant professional help?
I reached out to Nadine Kaslow, a psychiatry and behavioural sciences professor at Emory University and former president of the American Psychological Association, to ask.
When it’s more than a phase
It is very normal for preschoolers and early-elementary-aged kids to start to figure out what death is—and to grapple with it. This is the age when kids often experience the death of a loved one for the first time.
“Depending on the exposure the child has to death and loss, whether it’s the loss of a parent, a grandparent or a pet, the focus may be different,” Kaslow says. “But a certain amount of focus on death is normal.”
It’s time to really tune in, though, when kids begin questioning their own worthiness by saying things like, “I’m worthless,” “I wish I were never born,” “I’m not loveable,” or “What’s the point of living?” Not all children grapple with these types of thoughts, so Kaslow says it’s important to not blow this off as a typical developmental phase. Rather, these statements are indicators that a young child is struggling in some way.
That doesn’t necessarily mean their parents need to run out and get immediate professional help, but it does mean they need to dial in to their child’s feelings without criticism or judgement. “You want to be sure you’re really conveying to them that they’re loved and loveable, no matter what they do,” Kaslow says. “You want them to come to you (with these feelings).”
When it’s time to get help
There is a definitive line that, when crossed, is a clear indication that it’s time to seek help, Kaslow says. That’s when the topic of self-harm or suicide becomes a preoccupation or they take any action at all to harm themselves, no matter how superficially.
“If they fall and they’re upset they didn’t break their leg or they cut themselves really superficially,” Kaslow gives as examples. “Once there’s any kind of action ... (or) you get any wind that they’re trying to figure out how to hurt themselves—anything like that—I would say that’s when you, for sure, need to seek help.”
Other signs that are suggestive of depression, such as on-going sadness and an inability to enjoy things they once enjoyed, are also indications that it’s time to get professional help.
What that professional help looks like may vary by community and depending upon the resources available to you. You can start by reaching out to your school counsellor, paediatrician or other local child psychologist or therapist to assess your options or receive referrals.
Australia's Kids Helpline also offers good advice for kids, and parents of teenagers who may be at risk for suicide. You can also call them 24/7 on 1800 55 1800.