This week I advise a concerned mom about how to react when her son suggests he wants to hurt himself.
I had a concerning event come up today an would like to look to you for guidance. My son has, over the last few weeks, told us that he wants to hurt himself. Some examples have been holding a stick and saying he wants to poke himself in the eye to hurt himself and there have a been a couple of other instances although I can’t remember the details. I do not know how to react in this situation and I have a feeling that I am reacting too much and he is experimenting with my reactions. He is quite risk averse so the fact that he is saying that he wants to hurt himself is very confusing to me. Today when we came home from school I asked him if he still had that feeling in him and he said yes, so I took out a big paper and suggested he draw his feeling out, after a while of scribbling really hard he said that helped. I am looking for any literature you can recommend, advice on how I should react or if I should take these threats seriously.
A concerned Mom
Hi concerned Mom,
Before I dive in I just want you to know that even though it’s deeply unsettling, this behavior is fairly typical for your son’s age…hopefully we can figure out what might be driving him to explore this mode of communication.
From what you described, it sounds to me like he is looking for some kind of feedback, whether it be emotional or physical. What I mean is, he is most likely seeking something from you (maybe physical intervention, maybe some extra attention or validation?) Often times children will try out rather exaggerated methods to get a need met. Without really getting to observe these interactions though, it would be difficult for me to try and discern what his need could be.
It’s possible that this is actually lighthearted testing, and he is gauging your level of concern for him. Or maybe he is actually curious about what it would feel like to fully “be in charge” of his body- taking it as far as harming himself. It could be linked to an increasing desire to have more control in general, possibly indicating that he is feeling powerless about something else. At 5, kids tend to want to explore the depth of what they can control (which isn’t a whole lot) and that inevitably leads to what they do have power over…their bodies, and often times, our reactions.
But, I’m curious, does he actually ever go through with it? That is where a deep concern would be appropriate. As far as I can tell, he is experimenting here.
So, how should you react?
This is where it gets tricky. Because he is 5, and VERY bright, I would underreact as much as possible. It seems very unlikely to me that he would follow through with actually hurting himself because, well…it hurts! You could even take the route of responding with nonchalance, even if it’s feigned at first. So maybe something like:
Him: I’m going to poke my eye with this stick!
You: Hmm, ouch…wouldn’t that hurt?
I think asking this question might show him that you trust him enough not to “rescue” him from the scenario, and maybe his need is to feel trusted…even when he says alarming things.
I’m not too sure how he would respond to this question…if his answer would be “no” (like he feels invincible), or “yes” (which might mean he wants you to “talk him off the ledge”, showing that you care)…either way he would then be engaged in a conversation about it, which might allow for him to work out all the logic of why it’s not a good idea to hurt his body…which I’m sure he already knows. He most certainly can pick up on the fact that you are feeling uneasy about what he is doing, and he might be working that out and trying to reconcile with your discomfort by continuing to do it.
Mostly I think what he needs is a little trust, and time before this phase passes. I think the less the alarm bells go off about it, the more likely it is to fade out.
I hope this helps.
P.S. One more thought…
I wonder, too, if part of what is going on is a type of morbid curiosity about bodies, or blood etc. I know at this age that particular kind of inquisitiveness comes about, where they want to cut open worms and smash ants etc. Maybe this is informing some of the behavior. Does he have ample opportunities to talk and read about the functions of the body? Or look at pictures of all the inner workings? Just a thought.