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Five-Year-Old Threatens Suicide
Q: My first grader's guidance counselor just called me to inform me that my son threatened to kill himself. This happenned in the classroom. The counselor spoke with him during lunch and asked him what he was feeling, and such. He was angry and frustrated. He told the counselor that he did indeed know how because "My dad has a shotgun, and I know where it is." As you can imagine, I am beside myself. And, no, he cannot get to the gun. He has often said he wished that he were dead and even said he would kill himself to me, but always at a time when he is either angry at me or is in need of attention. I would love to know what to do. This is a five year old! I believe that attention is the keyword here, but how can I be sure?
A: Of course no parent wants to attribute a young child's threats to kill himself as just attempts to get attention if these death wishes suggest the ideation of a profoundly depressed, scared, or emotionally overwhelmed child. He knows that he can get adults' undivided attention with these suicide threats and he will probably continue to use them if they get him what he wants.
Your son should see a professional therapist so that he can have a forum to say what makes him so angry, frustrated, and neglected that he feels compelled to say he wants to be dead. I am sure it's clear to you, your husband, and any other family members and friends that your son should never be allowed to have access to any firearms. We tend to think that young kids cannot feel severe depression and/or anxiety, but they can. Your son must learn how to cope with his anger and frustration in more positive ways, from a position of optimism. This classroom declaration suggests that he is looking for help with some emotions that overwhelm him.
I would also take inventory of any major events that have occurred in the family (e.g., death of a family member) that might have led him to be more despairing. Please get him the experienced professional help that he needs and make sure that this family-oriented therapist includes you in the therapeutic process. Tackle this as a family problem, not your son's difficulty.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.