Kids have a penchant for the dramatic sometimes. Hyperboles like, “I’m starving!” or “You’re the worst mom, EVER!” frequently let fly. But one of the more disturbing statements you might hear out of your child is, “I wish I was dead.” Even if you don’t think they mean it, it can be scary to hear your most beloved little human say something so destructive about themselves. You may want to let it go or tell them not to talk like that, but a couple of experts I spoke to—a counselor specializing in youth suicide prevention and a pediatrician—say you should always address this statement.
Why kids say they want to die
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Your child lives life in extremes: It’s the best day ever or the worst. Someone taking their toy or insulting them feels like the end of the world. They tend to express these big feelings in big ways because they don’t yet have the tools to express complex emotions. “In those moments, intense emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration can overwhelm kids, and they might not have the vocabulary or emotional coping skills to express them accurately. Saying ‘I wish I was dead’ can be a way of shouting, ‘This hurts so much, I can’t bear it!’” says Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a board certified pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. Saying the most final thing they can think of, that they want to die, is their way of communicating a need.
Kids, for the most part, don’t understand what it means to die the way adults do. “Young children do not fully grasp the concept of death and permanency but rather still view it as going to sleep, going away,” so saying they want to be dead “does not necessarily mean intent of harming oneself but a way to express how bad one is feeling at that moment,” says Maureen Brogan, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in youth suicide prevention. Instead, kids are mimicking things they’ve heard others express in intense moments. “Kids might pick up the phrase from media, friends, or even overhear adults saying it casually,” Ganjian says. Yet, both experts say, if your child says they want to die or wishes they were dead, you shouldn’t ignore it.
What to say to your child
If you’re sure your child is exaggerating, that they don’t have plans or serious thoughts of self-harm, you still shouldn’t let a comment like, “I wish I was dead” go without chatting. Ganjian says, “Here’s the key: Even if you suspect exaggeration, take ALL statements seriously.” There are several steps to take in this scenario.
Brogan suggests that “as a trusted adult, you want to be non-judgmental and compassionate.” Even if they don’t feel as desolate as they say, still treat their comments as valid. Here are some sample statements from both experts to use as you move through this with your child.
Observe: “It seems like you are really upset,” or “Your face is telling me you feel frustrated and angry.”
Allow them to communicate: “Can you tell me what’s going on right now?” or “I’m here to listen to you.”
Acknowledge and validate: “That must be super tough,” or “I can understand how this is upsetting,” or “It’s OK to feel this way. Things can feel really overwhelming sometimes.”
Support: “You’re not alone in this.” “Your feelings matter to me.”
Look to past successes: “What have you done in the past that helped you get through a bad feeling like this?”
Moving from step to step helps your child feel listened to and loved, even if they’re feeling bad. Brogan says focusing on times in the past they’ve moved through a negative feeling helps build resiliency. Ganjian says, “By staying calm, listening actively, and showing support, you can help them through a tough time and build stronger communication for the future.” Resilient kids can handle hard situations with less adult intervention and less internal pain. Also, Brogan says this approach “is helpful in getting to the possible root of where the overwhelming feelings are coming from.” Once you know what’s really going on, you can problem solve together.
When to be concerned
While suicidality in young kids is rare, it does happen and you, of course, want to pay attention to signs that your child’s statements indicate actual self-harm. Brogan says, “As a caretaker, you are always looking for changes in behavior, especially if sudden or drastic.”
Ganjian says some warning signs include:
Changes in behavior or mood (withdrawing, loss of interest, increased risk-taking)
Talking or writing about death or suicide
Giving away prized possessions
Saying goodbye to loved ones
He says, “If you notice any of these, even alongside an exaggerated statement, seek professional help immediately.” Speak to your pediatrician or mental health provider. Brogan adds, “You can also ask if they have a plan on how they would die. (Remember that research has shown that asking about suicide does NOT plant the idea.) If there is some type of plan, you want to limit access to means, create a safety plan and seek additional professional support.”
If you do not have access to your healthcare provider right away or worry about imminent harm, visit the Crisis Text line, call 988 or visit their website for immediate support.
Both experts emphasize that feeding the connection with your child is more important than anything you say or do. “Connection is protection,” Brogan says. “We want young children to have these connections.” Connecting with your child when they feel big feelings is what will help them feel safe and loved. “Here is the most important part,” Ganjian says. “Realize that the opposite of depression is not happiness. The opposite of depression is connection.” Spending time with your child in happy times and hard ones, and focusing on positive interactions in both scenarios, will help your child be able to maintain a healthy state of mind and make good decisions going forward.