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My nine year old nephew told his (single) mother tonight that he wants to kill himself. What would prompt that?


His father is ... upstate ... for a little while longer, and they do have regular face time with him, as often as they may. He and his mother at times get a little heated with each other, but by and large they get along well. I'm generally the closest thing he has to a positive male role model, but I don't get to see him near as often as would probably be best for him. He's going to spend some time with my wife tomorrow (that was already planned before this evening).

He doesn't have a history of that sort of attitude in general, and altho he's had a few bouts of anger in the past, by and large he's a pretty well adjusted little kid. He's incredibly gifted for his age, compared to his peers.

I don't know what was going on between them tonight, I just heard from her what he said, and she didn't want to talk about it too much, he was probably in the same room. I'm sure I'll see him at lunchtime tomorrow.

Do nine year olds ever talk like that as a way of pushing their boundaries?


So I had the chance to sit down with him and ask him why he said that, which was probably the wrong way to approach it, but never-the-less, what his own admission was after-the-fact was that he was pretty well just doing it for attention. We then had a short chat about how that's about the worst possible way to get attention, and we discussed the story of the boy who cried wolf, again, and I re-affirmed with him that if he ever felt like that, he could always talk to me about it.

There was some other conversation about kids and bullying tactics (name calling, picking on, general young boy activities) and so ... yeah.

Life goes on.

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My 9yo girl (also very clever) has never mentioned anything like suicide in any context. It is an alien concept to her. From my sample space of one, I would not consider this typical or desirable. That being said, I have little idea what you can do about it other than to be the best role model you can be. Perhaps it is worth talking to him about how no problem is insurmountable and that when you have issues you just have to push through them rather than giving up... tough one. – dave Jun 2 '11 at 3:33
Yeah, that's just so foreign to me to hear that he would say such a thing. So I'm gonna see what's up with him tomorrow. – jcolebrand Jun 2 '11 at 3:34
@dave As someone who's spent years working with at-risk kids -- NEVER tell a depressed or potentially suicidal/self-harming kid to "push through" it. You can't tell someone who lacks coping skills to just cope -- at best, that is unhelpful, at worst, instead of understand that coping skills are skills and can be learned, the child thinks that it's "just easy" for other people, that he/she is defective in some way and may increase the depression or self-harm/suicidal pattern. – HedgeMage Jun 2 '11 at 10:23
@HedgeMage - fair point. It is hard to summarise 9 years of parenting in a paragraph. Teaching life skills to a child is something that starts from day one and is built up over years. My daughter does not suffer depression but certainly has the emotions turned up to 11. – dave Jun 2 '11 at 10:56
@Ernie 'cos it's not my story to tell, and it doesn't need to be the first thing that shows up on a google search or a result of listings. He's in prison for murder (one of the sentences a person can get paroled on) and it happened when he was 18. What's worse, he was actually (I knew him at the time) trying to clean up his act. C'est la vie. – jcolebrand Jun 2 '11 at 19:38
up vote 19 down vote accepted

It is concerning that he said that, but it may or may not actually mean that he's depressed, let alone suicidal.

It's safe to assume that your nephew is really bothered by something. How bothered isn't really clear at this point. Talk to him, but do not make a big deal about the suicide comment -- doing so could increase his tendency toward self-harm by teaching him that that sort of thing is a reasonable attention-getting tactic.

I saw a lot of kids in your nephew's situation when I volunteered at a local counseling center, and they are all different. Since I don't know your nephew well enough to offer specific advice, I'll share some general thoughts:

  • Kids need stability above all else. Change, even good change, can be stressful. Having people and places and routines he can depend on without question can go a long way to helping a child in this kind of situation cope.

  • By age 9, a child can easily tell when their parent is stressed about something, but they may not know what to do about it. Often it's easier for them to talk to someone outside the household because they aren't worried about adding to the stress level at home (theirs or their parent's).

  • If a child only or mostly gets attention from self-harm, misbehavior, etc. he will grow up believing that those are the "right" patterns, and generally adopt a victim's mindset. Certainly problems need solutions, but bad attention is still (in a kid's head) better than no attention, so reward patterns you want to see continue with more (good) attention and de-emphasize the bad.

  • Coping skills are just that -- learned skills. A lot of adults take the tack that kids shouldn't see them struggle with things because they want their kids (or even nephews) to think they can handle anything. That doesn't actually, in my experience, make kids feel more secure. Letting him see how you attack something that is really difficult for you -- not through a story or anything else that may seem contrived to him, but actually seeing it first hand -- is a great learning experience.

  • Focus on the cool things about your nephew -- don't let his situation define him in your eyes, and you'll help keep it from defining him in his own view.

You'll get a better idea of what's going on after you've spent some time with him. It may be a big thing, or it may not. Time will tell.

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+100 if I could. – JSBձոգչ Jun 2 '11 at 12:29
Hell, +100 if I could as well ;) – jcolebrand Jun 2 '11 at 14:29
You'll get a better idea of what's going on after you've spent some time with him. this was my original intent, going to have lunch with them and all that, just wanted to see if any other parents had some forward thinking advice before it shows up. I figure it's 'cos him and his mom were bickering about something last night. Letting him see how you attack something that is really difficult for you this he and I already do ;) don't let his situation define him in your eyes words to live by. – jcolebrand Jun 2 '11 at 14:32
+1 agreed, unless you spend time and he opens up you will not get an idea what is going on by guessing. – MichaelF Jun 2 '11 at 16:09
"Talk to him, but do not make a big deal about the suicide comment -- doing so could increase his tendency toward self-harm by teaching him that that sort of thing is a reasonable attention-getting tactic." I am concerned about this. So what if it is attention-seeking? That's what a cry for help is. – Christine Gordon Nov 14 '12 at 4:12

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