Worrisome Wishes: Temporary Upset or Serious Situation?
Question: My 10-year-old daughter, Margaret, sometimes says to me, "I wish I was dead" and other similar comments. Should I be worried?
Parents may be particularly sensitive to the issue you raise after the well-publicized suicide of a Florida teen that was broadcast online in November 2008. Our answer about how worried you should be depends upon various details of Margaret's situation.
Consider the context of statements
A statement cannot be understood without looking at the context. For example, people can mean different things when they say, "I love you," depending on to whom and why it is said at a given time. So consider when Margaret says these things. If it is when she is mad at you, this would suggest (but not prove) that she is expressing anger and a wish — at that moment — to sting you. In that case, the chances are that she does not intend to take any action but is just finding the most upsetting words that she can think of at the moment. It could also be possible that she is trying to elicit your concern at a time when she might be frightened by how angry she is at you.
Sometimes, however, children say "I wish I was dead" or something similar when they are hurt or sad in a more sustained way, not just reacting at the moment. This may or may not indicate an actual intention to harm themselves, but it can be a window into some deeper unhappiness that is being expressed at this moment of pain and remains present even when not expressed.
Look at the broader picture
The most useful way to make a judgment as to whether "I wish I was dead" is expressing something that you should take seriously is to think about Margaret in the bigger picture. How is she doing in general? Does she seem satisfied with her life? Does she generally seem to have a pretty good mood? Is she able to participate well in school, both academically and socially? Does she get along well with family members, at least most of the time? If all the answers to these questions are that she is doing reasonably well (understanding that all children face challenges and good and bad days in these areas), then it is much less likely that her statement is indicating something worrisome. If she truly felt so upset that she wished she was dead, the causes for this concern would be wreaking their havoc in other aspects of her life as well.
Another way to think about the broader context would be to ask whether she has other worrisome signs. For example, does she have significant signs of anxiety, act out behaviorally, or have food-related symptoms that appear to be in the direction of anorexia or bulimia? If these issues are present, we would give more importance to her comment.
Another set of issues that would lead us to take the comments more seriously would be a history of particularly difficult circumstances, such as trauma or abuse. In addition, currently stressful situations can lead to depressive reactions that show up through such comments. For example, parental separation, loss due to death and other disruptions can upset a child's equilibrium and lead to genuine and deep despair.
What to do?
If you feel that Margaret's comments are likely based on a momentary feeling, we would recommend that you do several things. First, at a calm time, revisit the situation with her. Convey your understanding that she was upset, but also convey your expectation that she express her upset in ways that are appropriate. There are other and better ways to express her outrage.
We would also encourage you and her other parent, if that person is part of her life, to ask a hard question: What do I (we) do when I (we) get upset? Do I (we) say things that are a little over the top, even if I (we) don't say what she is saying? If so, it is not quite fair to ask your daughter to do something different than what is being modeled. So, if you have blazed such a path, we recommend that you work on this yourself and perhaps explain to Margaret that you get a little carried away, too, and that this is an area that you will be trying to change.
If you are still unsure whether to be worried based on this guidance, ask Margaret. Tell her that you are concerned and want to know if she is concerned about these statements as well. Ask her whether she says these when she is mad, and means them only then, or are these feelings that show up at other times. (Don't say that she doesn't mean them; she does at the time.) She may well be able to help you sort out this situation.
Finally, if you are concerned that these statements may be signs that Margaret is struggling emotionally, you should seek professional help. The only exception from this suggestion would be if you feel that she is reacting acutely to some life changes, and make the judgment to give the situation a little more time to see how it goes for her.
If you are concerned, remember that her statement does not necessarily mean that she does not want to live; it is her way of communicating her pain and distress. She will be deeply grateful to you if you do not trivialize her concern and seek good help, because seeking assistance at this time in her life could make an important difference for her in the future.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The question of the month may be a composite or illustration of questions families have asked Lucy Daniels staff. To submit a question, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.