5 yr old wants to die, tantrums

My 5 yr old has twice referenced her death while having a tantrum. Once, she said, "I wish I were dead. I hate being a girl."

And today she said, "I want to die." The first time, we were rushing to brush her hair for school. I raised my voice...she started crying. She was looking in the mirror at herself when she said it. The second time, she was crying because she wanted a toy her sister had. She went into the laundry room to conduct her tantrum. We closed the door to keep the noise down, and about 5 minutes later she said it. Several friends think she heard those phrases somewhere and is experimenting with it. I am worried that maybe she really means it. Comments?

Doesn't sound good to me, and I can understand why you would be unnerved. Most five year olds wouldn't be experimenting with those ideas, even if they had heard them someplace. It sounds to me like your daughter is in pain. She is clearly telling you that she is unhappy, and you have the chance to address it now. If you don't, I fear you will be addressing a worse situation in a few years.

I'm also concerned that your daughter is linking being a girl with wanting to die. This she certainly could have heard someplace, but there is also a small chance that something is disturbing her about being a girl -- like being sexually harassed or abused, or having had some exposure to internet porn. It's a very small chance, but it does happen, even to five year olds, and such comments could be considered to be a small red flag. I would first be completely confident that your daughter is only being left with very trustworthy adults. Then I would ask her, sometime when you're cuddling, why she said she hates being a girl.

If it is just that she hates having her hair brushed, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, and then start doing the work you have cut out for you, because what she is really telling you is that:

a. She is unhappy, which means she will stay unhappy without your intervention, or
b. Your relationship with her is damaged and is causing her pain.

Luckily, the cure for both of these situations is the same: strengthening your relationship with her and empathizing with her.

I will be blunt: I understand why you might yell at your child, but every time you do it you damage your relationship with her. You can heal that damage, of course, but researchers have found that we need 5 positive interactions to every negative interaction we have with a loved one if we are to maintain that loving bond.

If you find yourself yelling at your child, ever, it is a signal that something in your life needs changing. Maybe her hair needs to be shorter so it gets less tangled, maybe you need to use conditioner when you shampoo it, maybe you need to get up five minutes earlier in the morning, maybe you need five minutes to yourself every morning listening to calm music, before interacting with your child. But consider yelling a signal that something needs changing. Yelling does not need to be a regular feature of your home life, and it has a higher cost than you might imagine.

I want to add that a five year old who is still having tantrums needs your help in learning to regulate her emotions. Shutting the door, no matter how noisy she is, will feel like abandonment to her and is the opposite of what she needs. I would urge you, the next time she tantrums, to go with her into the laundry room and sit with her. Don't try to touch her, or reason with her. Just empathize: "You really wish you could have that toy. It makes you so sad and mad that your sister has that toy and you don't." Your daughter will eventually learn that she can't always have everything she wants, but she can always have something better -- a mother who understands, and accepts her for who she is, including all her sad and mad feelings. That's how kids develop emotional intelligence. That's how they learn to control their emotions. And that's something worth living for!

There is another letter here from a mom whose eight year old is having tantrums; my answer to her might also be helpful to you.

Finally, I have a book to recommend to you. It is the best book I know for parents whose child is showing signs of unhappiness, for whatever reason. It's called "Smartlove" and it's by Pieper and Pieper. They may have it at your library, but it's so good you might want your own copy.

I wish you and your daughter much happiness together.
Dr. Laura

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