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Depression in Young People
Q: We have two sons, ages six and nine. We are very worried about our six-year-old. He cries very easily and has said that no one loves him and that he wants to die. I show him a lot of love, but it doesn't seem to help. He often pulls away from my hugs and kisses.
He told his class last year in kindergarten that no one likes him. The teacher handled it well, but it upset her and some of the other children. He has very low self-esteem. He is a very caring boy and would do anything for anyone, but I have noticed that when he does have friends over he pulls away from them or they end up fighting.
I am most worried about him saying he wants to die. I don't know if he is doing this to get my attention or if he was overly tired. What can I do?
A: You are right to be concerned -- this is not typical behavior for a six-year-old child. It's frightening for a parent to hear a child of any age talk about dying, but it is especially scary in one so young. Does your son watch a lot of violent television shows? Or has he been around someone who is depressed or has discussed suicide? Most children would not spontaneously talk about wanting to die. If this was a one-time occurrence I would think that it might be an attempt to get your attention, but it sounds like it has been ongoing.
A child's concept of death changes as he gets older. Children ages three to six often think that death is reversible and that a dead person will return. At around age six until around age nine most realize that death is final, but some may still think that the dead person could come back. Your son may be viewing death as an escape from his current unhappiness, but one from which he could return when things are better.
I would begin by taking your son to his pediatrician. Doctors today are recognizing depression in younger and younger children. Fortunately, depression is treatable with medication and therapy. You could also ask your pediatrician or your child's school counselor for a referral to a therapist for further help.
You don't mention your son's or your relationship with his older brother. Is he a "super kid" to whom your younger son may be compared by others? How does your younger son view your relationship with his brother? These are topics you may want to discuss with the therapist.
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Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.