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5 yr old wants to die, tantrums

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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?


I can understand why you would be unnerved. Yes, five year olds know about death, and when they are upset they will say the worst thing they can think of. But for most five year olds, this comes out as an attack: "I want a new mother!" or "I hate you!" or "You can't come to my birthday party!" Most five year olds don't say they want to die. But more importantly, most don't equate their pain with their gender.

We don't know much here about what is going on with your daughter. But we do know that she is in pain. She is clearly telling you that she is unhappy, which is a good thing, because that gives you the chance to address it.

I don't think, from your description, that your daughter is suicidal; she is using these words to show you how unhappy she is. But I do find it concerning that she is linking being a girl with saying that she wants to die. This she certainly could have heard someplace, but there is clearly some suggestion that something is disturbing her about being a girl. It may be that she is experiencing some gender dysphoria. Or it may simply be that she thinks boys have a better deal or is jealous of her brother.

I'm afraid that you also need to consider the possibility that your daughter has been sexually harassed or abused, or has had some exposure to internet porn. It's a very small chance, but these things  do happen, even to five year olds, and such comments could be considered to be a small red flag. Of course, even a small red flag needs to be considered. I would first be completely confident that your daughter is only being left with very trustworthy adults. Please read this article: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Your Child Safe From Sexual Abuse, which will support you to help your child feel safe discussing any concerns with you. 

Then I would ask your daughter, sometime when you're cuddling, why she said she hates being a girl.

  • If she says she wants to be a boy, then you know you need to start learning about gender dysphoria, so you can support her as she explores her gender identity.
  • If she says that girls get treated differently, ask more about this. Is there some way that she is treated differently?
  • If she says that girls get "touched" in ways she doesn't like, use what you learned from the article above to listen, reassure, and take action. 
  • If she says that she hates having her hair brushed, then you can breathe a sigh of relief. Since the first time your daughter told you that she wanted to die and hates being a girl was when you "were rushing to brush her hair for school" and "raised your voice...and she started crying," this is the most likely explanation. Your daughter may equate hair that is long and hurts when being brushed with being a girl, and like most children, being yelled at hurts her emotionally.

Presuming this is what you uncover, give some thought to how to keep hair brushing from being an ordeal for her. Maybe her hair needs to be shorter so it gets less tangled, maybe you need to use conditioner when you shampoo it, maybe she needs her hair braided before bed so in the morning there are no tangles, 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. Most adults discount children's feelings about having their hair brushed, but most of us would rebel against having someone impatiently drag a brush through our tangles every morning, and it is a miserable way to start the day -- and not good for your relationship.

And then, let's talk about raising your voice. When you're in a hurry in the morning, it makes sense that you would get impatient while brushing the hair of a five year old who won't stand still. But 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. Yelling does not need to be a regular feature of your home life, and it has a higher cost than you might imagine. If you find yourself yelling at your child, it is a signal that something in your life needs changing. 

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 parent 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.

Dr. Laura

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