A “Death” Wish?

Q: I have a 7 year old son who just happily started second grade. He is extremely bright and normal in every way. No major discipline problems, no unexplained behavior. Maybe a year or so ago he started occasionally say to me “I’ve lived too long” or “Life feels like a dream to me” completely out of the blue. I passed it off as an immature way of explaining a feeling of déjà vu or something like that.

But recently, he came home from school with a writing worksheet where he was to fill in sentences starting with things like “I am…”, “I want…”, etc.  He had written “I dream to die,” “I try to die” and “I wish to die.” When I (as calmly as possible) asked him to explain he first looked abashed, and then said “I’ve lived too long.”

He got extremely frustrated when I asked him to explain a different way because I didn’t understand. He said he didn’t know how else to explain it, and he stormed off to his room. Later he came back out and said he doesn’t like his life. Again I asked for clarification and eventually he told me that his brother talks too much and I ask too many questions. 

I told him that we all love him and don’t want him to die, and left it alone for the rest of the night. I have sent the teacher a note asking her to take a look and give me her opinion but I am wondering if I need to seek counseling. His normal behavior is incongruous with these kind of statements, but there’s always that nagging feeling that the “I’ve lived too long” comments are not quite normal either.   

A: My youngest son (we’ll call him “Sam”), now 9, went through a phase around your son’s age where Sam said on a daily basis that he “wanted to die at age 19.” We quickly realized that he didn’t have an explanation as to why he said this—by all other accounts, he was a happy, well-adjusted child—he just had this “thing” about dying when he reached 19.

We decided the best course of action (as it is with most child obsessions) was to monitor his behavior from afar and ignore the “dying talk.” We did impose one restriction: He was not to talk about death or dying at school, because it freaked out his teachers (who have been trained to notice when any kid mentions death/dying as a suicide prevention method). We told Sam this because he had written something like “I want to die” on a class assignment.

The funny thing about kids is that they often don’t know why certain thoughts pop into their minds—and at this age, they rarely have the maturity to delve deeper into their subconscious to figure out what they mean by death or dying.

But the other funny thing about kids is that the more a grownup talks to a child about an obsession (or fear), the more that child clings to that obsession or fear. In other words, we adults—as well-meaning as we are—can escalate these things when ignoring and not trying to get a child to explain or “get talked out of” or see “reason” allows the fear or obsession to die a natural death.

Already, you’re feeding the obsession by asking him lots of questions—to which, he doesn’t have any answers (or, probably more accurately, any answers that will make sense to you, as an adult). Children are illogical beings and what goes on in their minds often won’t make a lick of sense to us.

So what to do? As long as your son appears to be behaving as usual—no deviants from his usual demeanor, etc.—then don’t worry about his dying talk. In fact, just ignore it completely. When Sam would say, “I’m going to die in my sleep when I’m 19,” we all shrugged and changed the subject.

Remember, kids get weird thoughts and are strange creatures! It sounds like your son is just in a dying phase and I suspect he will outgrow it as he gets focused on other things and matures some more.

As for my Sam? He hasn’t uttered those words about dying in a very long time.

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