We’ve forgotten as a society that children are drama factories, and often blow things way out of proportion. Sometimes, those kids express violent thoughts concerning themselves, such as wanting to die. This mom wonders how to handle both her young son’s frustration and his occasional self-harm talk.
I’m not sure when we decided that all expressions of death and dying meant that there was something alarming about our children. Do not misunderstand me—we do need to pay attention to signs that a child who could be depressed.
Q: My 7-year-old son was doing a worksheet at school and made a mistake that he could still see after trying to erase it, so he asked for another worksheet. Since there was a substitute teacher and there weren’t any extra copies, she was unable to give him one. He got very upset and cried and hid under the table until a student went for help. The teacher across the hall finally coaxed him out. She took him into the hall and he began to express deep regret and embarrassment over what just happened. Then he told her he wanted to run into that brick wall over there and kill himself. That, of course, set off a chain of alarms through the school system because “no first grader should be talking of self-harm.” He’s never lost a grandparent or pet, so I’m not sure he knows what death even means. Is there anything I can do?
A: Yes, calm down. He’s a first grader, and apparently, everyone’s forgotten that first graders blurt out inappropriate things all the time. He’s frustrated. He’s embarrassed, so he wants the floor to swallow him up. But instead of saying that, he says the next best thing, “I want to die” and everyone freaks out.
Being 7, he has no clue what that really means—all he probably knows is that he wanted everything to disappear and go back to being “normal” again. When we say, “I could have died of embarrassment,” no one rushes over and tries to get us to a doctor, etc. They understand we’re talking hyperbole. Kids do this All. The. Time. They exaggerate on purpose because everything seems bigger and scarier and funnier to a kid.
I’m not sure when we decided that all expressions of death and dying meant that there was something alarming about our children. Do not misunderstand me—we do need to pay attention to signs that a child who could be depressed. But by all accounts, this was one isolated statement that was taken out of context, then the hand-wringing and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth began.
The real question is how to help your son handle his frustration when things don’t go his way in school, right? When he learns how to roll with not having a fresh worksheet, then he won’t be saying alarming, hyperbolic statements that sends everyone in a tizzy.
Help him learn some calming methods, like deep breathing, counting to 10 in his head (or backwards), putting his head down on his desk for a few minutes to regain control, etc. In my kids’ public elementary school, there’s a chair off to the side called the “Break” chair where kids can go to regain their composure anytime they want. Sometimes, the teacher will direct a child there, but most of the time, kids put themselves into the “break” chair when their emotions get the best of them.
Talk to his teacher about reminding him to use some of these techniques in the classroom. For example, one of my daughters struggled with this kind of frustration in the younger elementary grades, and one technique that helped her was putting her head down on her desk for a few minutes. So I told her teacher she might do that occasionally, and that she would recover faster if the teacher and other students didn’t bother her during that time. It worked, and now, as a sophomore in high school, she’s much better at handling frustrating moments.
I hope that helps ease your mind, and please remember—kids say the darnedest things, but we adults have forgotten how to not take it seriously.