Maybe you are having a ‘bad day’ or a hard few weeks. Naturally, you are feeling overwhelmed, and sensitive. “Can I just get a break!?” You are on the last straw. Then the final thing goes wrong, it could be small, but it’s enough tip you over the edge and an emotional tidal wave soon follows. What do you do? How do you respond? We often forget that the same process occurs in children in distress. However, one of the major differences is that their brain, specifically the part of the brain that helps them communicate their emotions in adaptive or helpful ways, is still developing. Additionally, for some children this skill is particularly hard for them and is lagging; leading to more frequent or intense outbursts.
For children, when their tidal wave of emotion crashes it seems to be full of unhelpful and challenging behaviour. It could be yelling, screaming, kicking, hitting, biting, name calling, pushing and the list goes on. However, what is often more concerning is when they talk about hurting themselves, dying or their own death. Your child may mean what they are saying and have a desire to act on these statements. Your child may also be so upset, overwhelmed or in distress that they do not know how to communicate it to you.
Whether or not your child means what they are saying; as a parent it is difficult to see their suffering. It likely creates feelings of pain and helplessness as you try to respond to their needs and keep them safe. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings, take a deep breath and respond calmly to your child. Below are some tips on responding to your child’s statements of self-harm or death:
Try to connect with your child’s emotion. Name it for them and allow them to correct you. Remind them that you are on their team and are available to help or support them.
2. Take it Seriously.
It will likely be unclear whether your child means what they say, is in distress or both. Therefore, it is important to take what they are saying seriously and monitor your child. If they let you, assist them to engage in helpful calming strategies.
3. Make a Call.
If you are concerned for their safety or they want to talk to someone straight away, call a crisis line.
a. Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
b. Mental Health Line: 1800 011 511
c. Lifeline: 13 11 14
If you are seriously concerned for your child’s safety, they want to take action, or there is immediate danger, call emergency services or take them to the emergency department.
4. Follow Up.
When your child is calm, set some time aside to talk with your child about what happened. Help them connect their emotions to the events that occurred. Gently remind them of what they said, if they meant it and if that wanted to make it happen. Check whether they are safe now, if they still mean it and want to make it
happen now. Work as a team to develop a plan with them on what to try next time.
5. Seek Help.
If you are concerned about your child seek professional help from your General Practitioner, Counsellor, or Psychologist.
A bad day may just be a ‘bad day’ and they may continue to struggle to manage their emotions. But working alongside your child on how best to respond to all types of challenges and manage the emotions it evokes in adaptive or helpful ways, will assist them to move towards wellbeing and personal growth.
Jessica Buster (M Clin Psych, Grad Dip Prof Psych, BA Psych Hons) is passionate about creating a caring and safe space to promote effective working relationships. Jessica applies evidence-based interventions in a client focused and collaborative manner to assist children, young people and their families move towards their goals of growth and wellbeing.
Jessica’s clinical training and experience has equipped her with skills in the assessment and treatment for mental health issues. She has gained experience working in roles across non-profit, hospital and private settings. This has included working as an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Therapist and roles at Guardian Youth Care, Headspace, Westmead Children’s Hospital Psycho-Oncology, and Healthy Minds Happy Kids.
Across all her roles, Jessica has pursued her interest in working with children, adolescents and their families experiencing a range of mental health difficulties including anxiety, emotion regulation difficulties, behavioural difficulties, social difficulties, and disability. She has been able to promote understanding and engagement with these clients by integrating a sense of fun and creativity into treatment.