Should I be alarmed when my six-year-old son says to me that he wishes he were dead? He made this comment today and I was so shocked I didn't know what to say to him. What should I do?
We'd suggest that one of three things is happening here.
The first possibility is that your child is feeling overwhelmed by something. You need to find out what it is. Is he falling behind in school? Is there a bully on the playground? Does he have trouble fitting in with the other kids in his class? Has there been a recent death in the family that has hit him especially hard? Ask questions and try to get him to talk about it. Say, "What has happened to make you feel this way? When did it start? How long has it been going on?" Keep in mind that when you're six years old big emotions seem permanent. Kids at this age don't really grasp the concept that death is permanent, too – they just see it as a way of getting out from under the burden. Of course, this doesn't mean that you should make light of the situation. On the contrary, you need to affirm your son's honesty and take his words seriously in terms of what they indicate about his emotional state. When you've determined the cause of his desperate frame of mind it would probably be a good idea to get a professional counselor to help him work through his feelings. In the meantime, keep the channels of communication open. Let him know that he can talk to you whenever life gets to be too much for him to handle.
If none of this seems to apply, the second option to consider is that your son may be talking this way in order to get attention. Children his age often resort to strategies of this nature when they feel "invisible" or as if no one is listening to them. Take a look around and ask yourself if he has any good reason to think that this is the case. Is there a new baby in the house? Are you and your spouse going through marital difficulties or facing financial challenges? What else is happening at home that might leave a six-year-old with the impression that no one cares whether he lives or dies? Sit down with your son and ask him, "Do you get the feeling that no one pays attention to you in this family?" If he says yes, then focus on that aspect of the problem. Find out what you can do to bring him back into the center of things. Don't get hung up on the subject of death and dying. Instead, help him develop the life skills he needs in order to overcome feelings of discouragement and alienation.
Finally, there's a chance that your child may be talking about death as a way of expressing anger or frustration. Maybe he's mad about having too many chores or too much homework to do. Perhaps he feels that he's always in the shadow of an older sibling or that other members of the family have more privileges than he does. If that's the case, he may be saying "I wish I were dead" as a way of getting revenge. You're in the best position to know whether this sounds like an accurate description of the situation in your household. If you're not sure, the solution, as in each of the scenarios outlined above, is to ask some pointed questions. Don't ignore his behavior or act as if the disturbing words were never spoken. Instead, talk to him and find out why he might feel motivated to hurt others by conjuring up the image of his own death. That's the best way to put yourself on the right path to discovering a solution to the problem.
Below you'll find a list of resources and referrals that may prove helpful. We'd also like to invite you to call and discuss your concerns with a member of our Counseling staff.
Your Child's Emotions