Recently I was chatting online with a group of children’s ministers when someone brought up the subject of suicide in children. No one wants to think that children as young as eight or nine years of age would be at risk for suicide or even think suicidal thoughts.
Most of us think of childhood as a carefree time; free of problems and stress. Even those of us that know children are hurting, have high stress levels, and are burdened with problems don’t think young children are capable of understanding life and death situations such as suicide.
Many of us believe children don’t have the developmental thought process to understand the finality of death through the act of suicide. Through research we are learning that “…. children in second grade and higher understood the concept of suicide or ‘killing oneself,’ including the permanence of the act.”
Almost all of the research that has been done on suicidal youth is done with teens. Very little research has been done on younger children. Suicide in general is underreported and it is even more so in children. From the “Suicide Risk in Children” article we learn, “Children seldom leave suicide notes, and they typically have less access to suicidal methods (e.g., guns, pills). When child suicides do occur, they often are officially reported as accidents.”
Situations that cause children to think about suicide
Often times, the recommendations for teens are not completely appropriate for children. We know there are high-risk parental behaviors and situations that contribute to suicidal thinking and attempts in this age group. These include:
- High marital conflict
- Mentally ill parents
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Child abuse
- Death of a parent
Motivation for suicidal behaviors
Some children put a lot of thought into the act of suicide. They are rarely impulsive. In an article “Children and Suicide” from the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada, the following are listed as motivations for suicidal behaviors
- An attempt to regain control in their lives
- Retaliation or revenge against real or perceived wrongs
- Reunion fantasies
- Relief or escape from unbearable pain
- They see themselves as the family scapegoat
- To distract the family from other issues, e.g. divorce
- Acting out a covert or overt desire of the parent to be rid of the child
Red flags for suicide
- A drastic change in behavior
- Uninterested in personal appearance
- Withdraws from friends and/or social activities
- Loses interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
- Gives away prized possessions
- Takes unnecessary risks
- Has experienced loss through death, divorce, break-up of friendship, etc.
- Eating or sleeping habits have changed
- Child is acting out in an unusual and severe manner
- Destructive behavior such as running into traffic, jumping from heights, scratching or mutilating oneself
- Discussing killing oneself in a joking manner
- Suicidal themes in artwork, school work or drawings
- Is in trouble frequently with parents and school
- Loss of self-esteem
- Lack of support system to deal with problems
- Talks about death and dying
From the article “Not a Child”, “Every year about 12,000 children aged 5-14 years old are admitted to psychiatric hospital units for suicidal behaviour. Prepubescent children who have attempted suicide are up to 6 times more likely to attempt suicide again in adolescence.”
So the answer to the question, “Do elementary age children seriously consider suicide?” Is yes they do.
Next in this series on suicide
“A call for help:” This post will address the things we need to keep in mind when ministering to children who might be suicidal along with ways to talk to them, what to say and not say.
“Suicidal myths:” Learn ways to effectively minister to this hurting segment of children.
The information presented in this article is for general information and should not be considered specific advice for any potential suicide situation. Always involve a church leader and/or mental health professional in the event you encounter a person or child who you believe might be considering suicide. Remember- you are not a mental health professional and should not attempt to diagnose or treat a person who is considering or discussing suicide. Get help quickly!
A personal thanks goes to Barbara Wright, LPC, CCPS for her contributions to this series on suicide in young children.
Barbara Wright’s contact information:
Licensed Professional Counselor Certified Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Norman Behavioral Health Group
3625 West Main Suite 100
Norman, OK 73072