Warning: Even Young Children are at Risk for Suicidal Ideation

diane sitting on steps with three kidsThe recent news stories about celebrities taking their lives once again highlights the very sad statistics about the prevalence of suicide.

The decision to end one’s life has a ripple effect; it impacts family members, friends, communities and even the whole country.

It is a tragedy that highlights how deeply sad and desperate many people feel with the result that some can no longer bear to remain in pain. There is much that we need to do to position our focus on prevention and intervention for all people, so we can be positive influencers around those we love.

Many people are aware suicide is one of the leading killers of adolescents.

But how often do we stop to think about the potential for suicide (and even what is called suicide ideation or frequent suicidal thoughts) occurring with children well before adolescence?

I have to admit—this was a hard subject to research, but at the same time I think it is critical for all parents to realize that even young children can struggle with feelings of sadness and despair. Ultimately, they can desire to stop the pain by ending their lives.

Research from about 10 years ago on the subject reveals that approximately 2% of all children between the ages of 7-12 attempt suicide.

That number may be higher today because the causes behind these attempts are even more prevalent.

Studies such as the ACEs research (Adverse Childhood Experiences) show that the more children experience the toxic stress of physical and emotional abuse or neglect, the greater negative outcomes are for later in life. (Check out the CDC’s website and ACEs Connection for more information on this research.)

Here are a few important highlights from an ACEs Too High article: Suicidal Behavior in Children Younger than Twelve: A Diagnostic Challenge for Emergency Department Personnel; Carl L. Tishler, PhD, Natalie Staats Reiss, PhD, Angel R. Rhodes, PhD, which summarizes: Scientific literature suggests that children as young as preschool age can display suicidal behavior and thinking.

The article notes…

80% of suicide attempts during childhood/adolescence were attributed to ACEs. Further, while system responses to family violence continue to place greater emphasis on physical forms of abuse, the strongest predictor of future suicide attempts in ACE research was emotional abuse.

Many wonder what could motivate a young child to consider or attempt suicide. The following suicidal motivators have been reported:

  • identification with a depressed or lost mother or lost father
  • shouldering the blame from family problems such as divorce
  • self-punishment
  • escape from an unberable life siutation
  • attempting to regain control
  • acting out the covert or overt desire of the parent to be rid of the child
  • seeking retaliation or revenge against real or perceived wrongs
  • avoidance of punishment/abuse, and seeking a better, happier, more comfortable place

The authors make the point

Young children are not mature enough to understand the realities of death, and therefore, of the consequences of suicidal actions. So what are some of the suggestions these experts make?

Emergency department personnel should start by asking children screening questions such as “Do you ever think about hurting yourself?” or “Do you ever feel sad enough that it makes you want to go away and not come back?” Asking “Do you feel like crying a lot?” may also help children disclose important information about their emotions. Initially posing questions with the terms “suicide” or “killing oneself” should be avoided, due to the concern with suggestibility discussed in the Suicide Triggers section.

Initial assessment should also include questions about depressive symptoms, such as sleep, appetite, and concentration, as well as energy level, fatigue, or feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach, and guilt.

Children who are depressed can also present with anger, irritability and agitation, sudden unexplained behavior or attitude changes, or feeling bored… Because young children exhibit fewer warning signs and links to precipitating events than older adolescents, suicide is somewhat hard to predict.”

Parents and all those who interact with young children can use these suggestions for emergency department personnel to check in with children, to make some preliminary assessments for children who might be considering suicide.

Parents can have serious discussions with their children.

Parents should not just focus on making sure their own children are not experiencing suicidal ideation but also encourage them to be aware of any of their peers who might be struggling.

Thinking about children being sad and despairing as to consider ending their lives is very hard to face.

At the same time, the recent suicides can serve as a reminder we all need to be aware of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and successful completion of suicide as real issues. Realizing that even young children can struggle is important for all parents to understand.

With all the business of life, we need to take the time to focus on where our children are emotionally and do what we need to do to reduce toxic stress in their lives.

Some additional resources for readers:


Invitation to Reflect

  1. Notice your reactions as you think about the issues of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for children, including younger children. What do you feel? To what extent are you willing to consider what your children might be needing in order to prevent the kind of pain and despair that leads to suicidal ideation?
  2. Growing up, do you recall any of your own moments of deep despair when suicide seemed like a viable option? If so, what do you think were some of the underlying causes? What kept you from taking action? What did you need from the adults in your life to help you?
  3. How do your answers to the previous questions give insight to what you might need to help your children or the children you know?