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My 5-year-old says scary things when he’s upset. Should we be worried?

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Q: When my 5-year-old son gets upset or frustrated, he often uses language like, “Nobody loves me,” or, “I should just kill myself.” He has big emotions across the board, and although I sometimes think he may be using this language to get a rise out of me and my husband (or to get attention), we always address it head-on. We’ll ask why he says such things, reassure him that we love him and redirect him to more positive activities. A healthy snack is often the best solution, so we already recognize that some of his frustration is driven by hunger.

After the outburst has passed, we’ll talk to him again about these self-harm-type statements. (We remind him that we all love him so much, highlight characteristics that make him special, ask whether he really wants to hurt himself, etc.) He often says he was just sad or angry and didn’t really mean it.

Clearly, this sort of language is alarming; you never want to hear your child say such things. He’ll occasionally thump his head on the bed mattress or couch cushion, but he has never actively hurt himself. Still, we monitor him very closely when he starts talking this way.

We intend to schedule a meeting with the (outstanding) school counselor as soon as kindergarten starts this fall, but I would like to hear your thoughts/insights on these actions. Should we be more concerned? Is an immediate doctor’s appointment merited?

A: In every column where a parent asks whether they should go to their pediatrician, I recommend this: If you want to contact your pediatrician, do so. A good pediatrician should always be happy to see you and your child, as well as to listen to all of your concerns. Don’t let the doubts of, “This feels dumb,” or, “I don’t want to bother the doctor,” cloud your judgment. Do what feels right for you.

As for your son, it is highly unlikely that he is actively suicidal or having suicidal thoughts. Has it ever happened? Sure, in extreme cases, there are children who are severely depressed and have harmed themselves. Although I don’t know many details about your family, it does not appear that your son is depressed or wants to self-harm. In fact, when you ask him, he gives you a pretty honest answer: “He often says he was just sad or angry and didn’t really mean it.”

Developmentally, typical 5-year-olds have very big emotions, and they can sometimes swing from one extreme to another with alarming speed. You will start to see some reasoning, consideration, logic and patience from 5-year-olds, but do not be mistaken: They are still very immature and can become easily hijacked by emotions. This is not — I repeat, this is not — a sign that anything is wrong with your son. It is a child’s job to be young and immature; he is still growing and learning.

You mentioned his hunger as a trigger for these emotions, and this is the direction I want you to keep heading. Everything in your letter (other than the hunger) is geared toward what you do during and after the explosion: asking him why, telling him you love him, redirecting him to other activities, then revisiting it again, rehashing the statements and asking more questions. It is too much. He is 5, and although he is quickly developing an understanding of his interior world, he cannot give you the answers you are seeking, so stop with all of this reaction. Your reactions aren’t working.

Let’s instead respond with a proactive approach. Sit with your partner, and make a detailed list of when these outbursts occur. Where are you when the outbursts take place? When do they seem to occur the most? What leads up to the explosions? Is your son overstimulated, hungry, tired or bored? You may not get all of this information, but by taking on this kind of perspective, you are moving your parenting work away from the back end (where you really can’t do anything) and toward prevention (where and when you can), which involves having a deeper understanding of your son.

And although many 5-year-olds have big emotions, yours may be sensitive. Allergies, feeling his feelings more, giftedness and impulsivity can all be at play here, and although I’m not a big fan of early diagnoses, it is helpful to keep a record of what you are seeing to best support him as he gets older. There is nothing wrong with being more sensitive, and these children need a slightly different parenting approach from the typical child. Pick up Elaine Aron’s work on sensitive children and parents to discover whether your son fits the description.

You sound like loving parents, and I love that you are reassuring your son of this love. Never stop doing this. I am going to ask you to consciously connect with your son when he is not exploding. From your letter, it sounds as if he is getting tons of attention when he explodes, so switch the connection to special time, family meetings or walking to the park. (Really any other time than when he explodes.) Yes, you are going to stay close and quietly offer loving support and a hug when he does this, but otherwise, you don’t need to say anything. Notice whether the behavior lessens as you move the attention away from the explosions and toward everyday connection. Good luck.

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