The COVID-19 pandemic turned a new focus on the mental health of children, with several reports noting an increase in suicidal thoughts in kids. One study found that hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts increased 57% at the start of the pandemic, with children as young as 5 visiting emergency rooms in response to suicidal ideation.
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranked suicide as the second-leading cause of death in children between the ages of 10 and 14. While suicide risk in children is often discussed in the context of older teenagers, experts say there is a very real risk in younger children as well.
"Suicide is rising among younger children," Vanessa Laurent, a pediatric psychologist at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. "It is never too early to start discussing suicidal risk and increasing the protective factors in children’s lives."
Suicidal thoughts "can occur in early elementary school-age children and in some cases earlier," which is why it's important to take a child seriously if they talk about ending their life, Yesenia A. Marroquin, clinical psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. This isn't a conceptual thing — it actually happens, Stephanie Strumberger, a licensed clinical counselor at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "Even as a therapist that has been working with children since early 2000, I am amazed at the young age at which children even know the word suicide," she says. "I have heard children as young as 4 mention it."
There are a lot of helpful resources for suicide prevention in children, but it largely focuses on teens. That makes sense, given that teens are much more likely to die by suicide than younger children. However, data show that hundreds of younger children kill themselves in the U.S. each year. So, what should parents do their your younger child expresses suicidal thoughts? Here's what mental health experts recommend.
Why might young children have suicidal thoughts?
There are a lot of potential reasons young children may consider suicide. "Bullying, trauma and high conflict or neglect in the household are some causes," Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. "I’ve also worked with a lot of children in this age group who reported having suicidal thoughts because they felt overwhelmed by their mental health symptoms and believed they were alone in their experience." Many of these children struggled with anxiety and depression, Ammon says.
Research into suicidal risk factors in young children is "limited," but there are some suggestions that a child may be at risk, Marroquin says. Those can include:
going through multiple traumatic events
family stressors, like divorce and parental substance abuse
school challenges, including moving schools and being suspended or expelled
mental health diagnoses like depression and ADHD
family history of suicidal behavior
"Additionally, early exposure and overuse of social media may be linked to increased suicidal ideation, with factors such as post sensitivity — reaction to posts not being well-received — and cyberbullying being key contributors," Laurent says.
How can parents figure out if it's serious or attention-seeking behavior?
Some parents may assume a child's comments about suicide are attention-seeking behavior, but experts say it's crucial to pay attention to these remarks. "Always take it seriously, as we must prevent the risk of self-harm or suicide," Dr. Subodh Jain, division chief of psychiatry at Corewell Health, tells Yahoo Life.
Strumberger agrees. "When children are seeking attention, there is always a reason," she says. "Something is going on. The best-case scenario is that they are trying to understand what it means and what would happen." Strumberger points out that a child is "never 'too young'" to take their own life.
What parents should do if their child expresses suicidal thoughts
If parents notice any concerning behaviors, Ammon recommends that they ask the child what they are thinking and feeling. If a child makes suicidal comments, Laurent recommends pausing and taking a deep breath to lower the risk of overreacting. "Kids are less likely to share their feelings and thoughts if they believe their parents will be upset or reactive," she says. "Creating an open and validating environment is crucial to avoid dismissing or rejecting the child experiencing suicidal ideation."
She suggests asking a child direct questions about the nature of their suicidal thoughts. Some examples:
"What do you mean when you say you want to die?"
"How long have you been thinking about killing yourself?"
"Do you have a plan of how you would try to kill yourself?"
"What do you think would make things better?"
"What do you need from me?"
"Parents should also increase parental oversight and supervision and express their love and support, as well as openly discuss their plan to connect the kid with resources," Laurent says. "Additionally, it is highly recommended that parents lock up any sharp, ingestible or dangerous items."
If a child is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, Marroquin recommends that parents reach out to their primary care provider to see if the child may benefit from therapy. If families need immediate assistance, she recommends calling 988 (the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline) and seeking psychiatric emergency services through their county’s mobile crisis team, local crisis center or nearest emergency room.
"Remember, you know your child best — their likes and dislikes, their typical rhythm and pattern, and when something seems 'off,'" Marroquin says. "Trust those instincts."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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