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My Four Year Old Told Me He’s Going to Kill Himself, and I Had No Idea How to Respond

This past week has been hard. My worst fears were realized when my four year old answered my request for him to stop hitting his brother with, “I’m going to KILL myself. THEN you’ll be sorry!” Angry because he didn’t get his way during a temper tantrum, he shouted these words into my face, his rage evident in the tears in his eyes and the fists he clenched at his side.

And I froze, shocked to my core, completely taken aback.

It’s been a long time, but I know he learned it from me, one of the many times in his young life that he had to hear his mama break down.

I am devastated. The fact he used those words in that context has thrown me for a loop. My guilt gains steam the more I think about it.

I remember months of prenatal depression when I was pregnant with him. I remember screaming at my husband that I wanted to die – I would never be a good enough mother. I begged him to kill me. I prayed to god to die in childbirth so that I would never impact his life with my mental illness. I prayed that my faulty genes would be overwhelmed by my husband’s good-natured ones.

I remember the bouts of depression I suffered during his first year. The on-again, off-again medications I half-heartedly tried as I battled to find myself as a mother.

I remember when he was two years old how I was screaming inside my own head until I looked down to find that I had angrily cut several times into my arm in the middle of my kitchen. The blood poured down to our white tile floors, and I blinked a few times. Thankfully he didn’t see me do it, but his little legs carried him into the kitchen as I was applying paper towels to stop the bleeding. He asked me worriedly, “Mommy! What happened? You’re hurt!” I smiled manically and swore that it was just a scratch… I’d just scratched my arm a little… it would be okay.

I remember later that year, when I was overwhelmed with media attention for a blog post I’d written. I’d tried explaining to the police about how I was stressed out that people were coming to our home and threatening us. I was scared because intense situations make my anxiety worse. I said something like, “I just want to crawl into a hole and die.” Instead of helping to allay my fears, they handcuffed me, threw me in the back seat of their car and drove me to the hospital to commit me against my will. They said they were trying to help. The last thing I saw as we drove away was the fear in his young eyes as his daddy held him at the door. They matched the fear in my own.

I remember the times I’d been angry with my husband and had screamed out those fateful words, “I should just kill myself.” I’d never meant them. I was repeating a phrase I’d heard over and over again in past relationships… when the people who were closest to me told me that I was worthless and should do the world a favor and end it all…  It becomes second nature after a while to believe everyone would be better off without you.

But that was all in my past. I haven’t seriously considered suicide since before I met Mark. In fact, in a few days, it will be 6 years since my last attempted suicide… the only time I was almost successful.

Things have been good for a while… My depression has been mild and well-managed for the last couple of years. I smile without faking it. I cry a lot, but that’s a huge improvement from the robot I was for years. I think I’m a good mother to my children, and I know that they are happy and enjoy our family life.

Yet, my four year old just threatened to kill himself, and I know that he learned it from me. What do you even do with that? What is the appropriate response?

Immediately, I sat him down to speak to him about what those words mean, and I cried as I told him how distraught we would all be if anything ever happened to him. I tried to find a balance between taking seriously his anger and frustration and making sure not to fuss too much lest he use those words as a weapon against us.

But the more important lesson I’ve learned is that kids hear things. They learn from our words as much as our actions, and every single day is a chance to teach them how to manage behavior and emotions in a healthy way.

I don’t know how much damage I might have done to my kids with my own struggle with depression. But I know that I am stronger than my mental illness, and I will win. And it is up to me to show them every single day that I am winning. It is up to me to share with them what I’ve learned.

I am vulnerable. I have fears and anxieties and anger inside of me. But I also have hope and love and an honest joy that is so raw it brings tears to my eyes. I will show them that we choose our happiness. And that there are some things we do and say that can never be taken back.

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Wednesday 4th of November 2015

The hardest part about being a parent is that our kids are our mirrors and they shine light on the darkest parts of our personalities. Although it can be painful to witness, it's also a gift to us because it allows us to see the parts of ourselves that need improving, the parts of ourselves that we would never work on for ourselves but that we have to fix for our babies.

One thing I've learned as a mother is that my son is going to be and do what I am and what I do. The best gift you can ever give to your boys is to focus on making yourself the kind of person you want them to be.

Katie Reed

Wednesday 4th of November 2015

This is so perfectly said, Tracy, and I thank you. You are very right. I have always known that I suffer from various mental health problems, but I had thought I had it under control until I saw my son acting out. So yes, it is a gift because it has allowed me to stand back and realize that big changes need to be made.

I will be working toward a better me so that I can teach my kids through my own behavior.


Tuesday 3rd of November 2015

I am a woman who has suffered depression since I was very young. I am a mental health counselor. I am a mother to 2 young boys. If you're not prepared to deal with what you could pass on to your should not have children. You decided to have children, which means that you needed to be prepared to teach them coping skills. If you didn't know how to teach them, then you get counseling for yourself to learn or you get your kids into play therapy so they know how to help themselves. I KNOW how awful depression is. I KNOW what it feels like to want to kill oneself. I've been there more than once. I KNOW it's difficult. I also know to NOT mention suicide in front of my children. If that is a concern, we call for help at once. We don't shout this in front of our children. The 1st time this happened should have meant immediate treatment for you. Are you getting treatment now? It's not clear. Depression is not an excuse. We take care of it like we take care of any other medical condition...therapy, medication. Effective therapy teaches emotional regulation. Are you getting this so you don't scream you want to kill yourself in front of your children?

Katie Reed

Wednesday 4th of November 2015

Michelle - I thank you for commenting, and I appreciate the message of what you're saying. But I do feel you are being very judgmental without knowing the facts, and I also feel you are making blanket statements. Of course I do not intentionally say or do things in front of my children that are negative or harmful. As I mentioned, it has been a couple of years since I had any sort of issue, and at that point my oldest son was only 2.

No, I am not in treatment. I have seen numerous therapists, counselors and psychiatrists over the years, with little success. I'll be honest - your accusatory tone feels very unseemly for a mental health counselor. I realize that a lot is lost in translation online, but I think if you re-read what you wrote, you will realize it has come out very confrontational and judgmental, which immediately makes me (and anyone who might be reading this) feel worse.

Obviously I shared my story because I realize that some of my behaviors have been wrong, and I know that my son may need some professional intervention (which we are looking into). But it seems like whenever someone speaks out about mental illness, there are people who immediately attack them for mistakes they have made in the past rather than offering help to mitigate those mistakes in the future. As a counselor, I'd hope you were not speaking to your charges that way.

Again, I appreciate your overall message, which is that it is my responsibility to myself and my children to ensure that I can cope with my own issues and offer them the support they may need. I am trying hard to do just that.


Tuesday 3rd of November 2015

In the last year I have been diagnosed as bipolar. I have never mentioned killing myself out loud, though I have thought it. My bipolar disorder didn't present itself until 3 years ago. Killing myself had never crossed my mind until then. So it was quite disheartening to hear my 5 year old son, who is now 9, scream, more than once I might add, that he wished he were dead. As he got older the frequency of his outbursts increased and morphed into him wanting to kill himself and saying we would be better off without him.

Again, although I had these thoughts, I never spoke them out loud, nor have I self harmed, though I have wanted to. I vowed to never do those two things because my own mother did them and I remember the negative impact they had on me as an adult. I in no way wanted my children to experience that pain. In case you're wondering what I do when those feelings of self harm begin, I draw/write on my thighs because I know my children won't see what I write. I get out the frustration that is causing my wanting to self harm and then wash the pain away by showering the ink off.

Anyways, my son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 6 but my husband and I knew there was more happening with him. We were pretty sure he was depressed but no psychologist or psychiatrist want to diagnose such a young child with depression, so wait it out to see what symptoms the child exhibits as they get older. Finally, about 3 months ago, my son was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is getting the therapy and treatment he needs. Life is so much better now, for all of us, though we still have our bad days once in awhile.

I guess what I'm trying to say is it might not all come from what you say. Since depression can be hereditary, it runs on my side and my husband's side, your son might be showing early signs of depression himself. If he displays other signs of depression, get him help. Signs of depression can be different in children so make sure you know what to look for. You can ask his therapist what to look for if needed. If your instinct tells you there is something wrong, follow it!

If I could give you a hug, I would. Depression sucks. Literally!

Katie Reed

Wednesday 4th of November 2015

Thank you for sharing this, Kim. I am so sorry for all that you have personally experienced, and I hope that your good days outweigh your bad. I appreciate what you said. I do know depression can be hereditary, and I worry every day that my kids will have inherited my condition. All I can do is make sure I check my own behavior an keep them talking when they are sad or upset.

I love your idea about drawing/writing on your thighs. That is a stroke of brilliance!

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