Dear Dr Justin,
Our eldest has recently started saying no one likes him, that he is naughty and bad… And to my shock recently saying he’d like to be dead?!?
He is only six years old. How am I supposed to respond to that?
As a parent, our response to our children’s hurt is extremely important. Our immediate response to this type of situation is often defensive. We begin to argue, albeit in a kind way, with what our child is saying.
"What do you mean no-one likes you? Of course they do. What about your friend here, and that person here?"
Alternatively, we may become upset with our child.
"Don't say things like that! Of course you don't wish you were dead."
In each case, we are responding to our child’s words or behaviour, but not to his or her feelings. In fact, when we look at these responses, we are either dismissing of the emotion (example 1) or we are disapproving of it (example 2).
But – it is the feelings our child is experience that matter most.
If we, as parents, can help our children explore their feelings safely, we can walk them through difficult and lonely times with less chance that they will really believe the things that they say.
There are several ways that we can work with our children effectively in situations such as this.
Listen with your heart rather than your ears
When we listen only to the words our children speak we give advice, or worse, we argue. As a result, our children will likely feel unheard, frustrated, or dumb. Listening with our heart in contrast, provides “emotional first-aid”.
When we listen with our heart we seek one thing only – to show that we understand. And we’re not just understanding things at an intellectual, or cognitive, level. We’re understanding and having compassion at a psychological and emotional level. It’s a form of deep understanding.
In this situation we don’t offer anything other than understanding, and the best way to show that is to label our children’s feelings. We might say
“You feel really awful right now because of how your friends are treating you.”
“When you found out that you didn’t score well on that test it made you hate school and even hate life.”
“When I yelled at you, it made you feel like you weren’t important to me.”
“You feel really lonely right now.”
“Things aren’t going too well at the moment are they. You feel upset.”
Labelling our child’s emotions can be reassuring for them. It helps them realise that what they feel has a name. If we can help them understand that this feeling with a name is a relatively normal response to sadness, disappointment, fear, or other circumstances, then all of a sudden those great big feelings aren’t so scary, and they don’t have to culminate in a desire to end life. In fact, if it can be named, it can be controlled.
I call this ‘emotional attunement’, and it occurs as we tune into – or turn towards – our children’s emotions. It can be hard to do, particularly if we are emotional. However, it is the most powerful way to help our children feel understood.
Ask your children if you are understanding correctly. Is there anything they would like to tell you more? Keep communication open as much as possible – from your child’s end, not yours!
Remember that the communication shouldn’t be advice-based. Rather, it should be focused on understanding.
Ideally you will be able to ask your child to explain what he is feeling and why. Remember this: we tell stories so that people can understand the emotions we are experiencing. Whether it is your spouse, mother-in-law, best friend, or your child, stories are about sharing an emotion.
Help him use the skill of perspective taking
Once things have calmed down, invite your child to think about the truth of what he or she said. When he is calm he will probably realise that things really aren’t as bad as they seem. But HE needs to realise this. He can’t be told.
So get him to take the perspective of others. Ask how they really feel. Have him consider what they might be going through themselves. This is a time that we might offer reassurance, but it is always best if our children do their own reassuring as well.
"Can you think of anyone who might feel kindly towards you? How about your family?"
Recognise that everyone, including grown-ups feels like this sometimes
By helping our children understand that the emotions they are feeling are part of the normal human experience, they’ll see that they’re not alone and that others like them have gotten through a difficult period.
Brainstorm strategies together
When things are really, truly tough, our children may struggle to come up with ideas and solutions. But with time, patience, and gentle guidance from us, we can often discover creative solutions to difficult problems. And the more your child develops those solutions, the better. You’ll be amazed at how many incredible answers are inside your kids if you patiently give them the chance to get them out.
If you need help, get help
If this type of conversation continues consistently or if you perceive that your child may actually seem intent on carrying out any kind of suicidal behaviour, get professional help fast. It may be tempting to ignore it, dismiss it, wave it away, and hope that your child is just having a bad day. But when this type of talk and behaviour is ongoing, sometimes professional help can make all the difference.
In most cases young children are simply feeling hurt and lonely. They will respond well to love, empathy, and compassion. In some cases, they need much more. Be sensitive. Be available. Be warm. Hopefully your son will feel better quickly.
And finally, recognise that these feelings won’t go away after just one conversation. You will probably have to revisit these points several times over a period of time before your child starts to feel happier about life again.