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Is Child's Threat of Suicide a Cry for Help or for Attention?

Question

My oldest is eleven and started middle school this year. Overall it has been a smooth transition. She has a great group of friends and likes school. She does not have a phone and has very limited access to the computer for TV, games, and such. No social media, either. She has always been a very emotional, strong-willed child. Within the last month, while she was extremely upset (once about a school assignment, once about getting in trouble for behavior towards us), she screamed out about wanting to kill herself. I think she’s doing it for a reaction, but I have no idea where this is coming from. We didn’t react to it, but should we be worried? Should we address it when she’s calm?

Answer

Hello and thank you for this question. Welcome to the world of middle school girls where you will find an ever-flowing and endless supply of extreme emotions and drama. Some parents will describe these years as if a switch has been flipped and their seemingly sweet and mostly agreeable child has morphed overnight into a completely irrational and sometimes unrecognizable human being that can leave you and your spouse scratching your heads wondering what on earth just happened. They can be especially unrecognizable when in the heat of the moment, generally moments when they are not getting their way or are being punished, they make statements such as “I hate you”, or even threaten suicide. It is scary and alarming to hear those words come out of your child’s mouth for the first time but if your gut was telling you her threat of self-harm was just to get a reaction out of you and nothing more, then you did the right thing by not reacting to that statement or giving in to her in the heat of the moment.

As her parents, you know your child best so if you truly feel that further evaluation is needed to see if there are true concerns with her threatening suicide then you should follow up with making the necessary appointments immediately. However, if you truly believe as you stated that “she is doing it for the reaction” then a conversation is warranted when she is calm to discuss the seriousness of making statements like that when she is mad or angry. When we were faced with this situation in our family, we approached it as a teachable moment to communicate acceptable and unacceptable ways of being mad or angry because let’s face it, we all get mad. Anger is a completely normal human emotion and children need adults to teach them how to manage it properly. Sit down with your daughter and develop a list together of positive and negative ways of displaying anger and work into the conversation that making empty suicidal threats falls into the category of negative or unacceptable way of displaying her anger. Next, in a very calm but serious voice, let her know that because of how much you love her and care about her that going forward if she ever does make another statement or threat like that you will view it as a cry for help and require her to visit the doctor who may suggest that she have to pull out of her extracurricular activities and limit time with friends until she is doing better. I suspect once your daughter understands your new position on making statements like this and how it could impact her social life, she will be much more careful with her words going forward.

Middle school is one of those times in a child’s life where so much of their world is changing and changing rapidly. Truly, it's a roller coaster of emotions! Starting a new school, making new friends, and trying to deal with rapidly changing hormones all at the same time can be very overwhelming so it’s important to keep that in the back of your mind and don’t take too much of what she dishes out at you personally. She needs you to be her parents, not her friends more than ever right now. Look as this time as your opportunity to be the one constant in her life. Being her source of unconditional love and acceptance while also setting clearly defined rules and guidelines will help her navigate these tween years successfully. Let us know how it goes and reach back out if you need further guidance.

Lisa Woodman
Certified Leadership Parenting Coach
coachingbythecup@gmail.com

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