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SIBLING RIVALRY: Why it happens and how parents can respond to it

SIBLING RIVALRY: Why it happens and how parents can respond to it

Written by: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Sibling rivalry is a conflict between brothers and sisters that go beyond simple disagreements between two or more parties because of individual differences and different opinions on a subject. Starting from as early as the birth of the second child, sibling rivalry usually involves jealousy and competition between siblings which can show up as fighting on a frequent or routine basis. It is usually frustrating and stressful for parents who do not understand human psychology or the basis behind relationship conflicts. They are often at a loss as to how to respond to the ongoing conflict between their children.

Since sibling rivalry often shows up from early childhood, the following forms of sibling rivalry behaviour are often displayed in response to each other:

  • name-calling,
  • blaming,
  • poking,
  • stealing things,
  • lying,
  • challenging a belief,
  • arguing,
  • simply looking at each other (with the intent of intimidation)
  • tattling,
  • breaking something that belongs to the other one,
  • hitting,
  • throwing something at the other one,
  • hiding something that is important to the other person.

 

Reasons for sibling rivalry:

  • Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby. They were the centre’ of their parents’ attention until the new baby arrived. Now the new arrival is seen as a competitor for the parent’s attention.
  • Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of a parent’s attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Their sense of value is measured based on their evaluation of their parent’s attention to them. So they compete to be favoured.
  • Children who struggle to differentiate and individuate as unique individuals do not yet recognize their personal power except through conflict and competition with each other. It shows up as a power struggle.
  • Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
  • Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead. 
  • Children’s developmental stages affect how mature they are and how well they can share a parent’s attention and get along with one another. The less mature sibling may be more likely to want their parents’ attention as an all-or-nothing need focused on them and not their siblings. This immaturity is expressed as an either-or view instead of being able to adopt the view of both-and (ie., both being important). As such, their level of emotional maturity is showing in their attempts to resolve their attempts to negotiate with each other to resolve their conflict.
  • Each child feels the need to compete with each other to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they may uncover their own talents, activities, and interests. Sibling rivalry shows up as their struggle to separate, differentiate or individuate from their siblings while feeling inferior or superior along the way in contrast to their sibling.
  • Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
  • Stress in the parents’ lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry. 
  • Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this resentment may subconsciously be projected on their child to influence how the parent treats that child so that the child is regarded as, eg. the ‘black sheep’ or ‘the problem child’ vs. the idealized. The problem-child view can be accepted by the other siblings from the parents and then be regarded accordingly. Similarly, if a parent simply has a favourite child among their children, maybe because the child is regarded as more socially, academically or physically attractive among the children, this can foster jealousy, resentment and competition between the children.
  • How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings are normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. 
  • Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict. The absence of an emotional bond between the children can increase the likelihood of conflict.

 

Other factors that influence sibling rivalry:

  • Birth order: for example, it is common that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention while the middle children often feel overlooked (eg. the oldest being celebrated by the parents or extended family as the first-born; the youngest being celebrated as the ‘baby’ of the family).
  • Spacing between the children: when spaced further apart, there is usually less competition; when spaced more closely, there tends to be more.
  • Temperamental differences: temperamentally easy babies tend to be liked more while more difficult ones are experienced as more annoying.
  • If parents choose as a favourite or respond differently to their children, this can also spur more jealousy and competition or intensify competition between them.
  • Gender: in some families, a child of one sex is preferred over the other.
  • Physical influences: children who share a room may argue more due to being in constant close proximity with each other; a child who received more attention due to an illness or physical disability may leave siblings feeling neglected or ignored.
  • Parenting style or approach: Children with very permissive and overly harsh parents tend to fight more –permissive parents may not operate with adequate rules so children feel they have to settle their conflicts by themselves without guidance; overly harsh parents who are strict or harsh tend to model aggression to their children to get their needs met. The best outcomes show up with parents who have acquired what has been described as the authoritative approach.
  • Age of the children: as children mature and reach later developmental stages, sibling rivalry tends to decrease.
  • Transitional times: sibling rivalry tends to intensify when there are changes in the family, eg. the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage. 

 

How to respond as parents?

With this knowledge already outlined, parents can lookout for ways to parent more intentionally. Firstly, they have to desire for their children to get along or be positive or loving with each other in the family. Interventions can then be planned for. They can be preventative or when conflicts occur, facilitate to address the identified need or help resolve the conflict between the children. For example, understanding how the birth order could raise the possibility of jealousy between siblings, or the prospect of one child being favoured over another, the importance for each child to be valued and appreciated as unique is an important practice. Also, parents need to watch how they manage their own conflicts as their children view them as role models for life learning. At the same time, they can remain optimistic when they realize that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside. The younger they are, the more parents are called on to be a referee. Probably the most help needed to be directive with the children is 4 years or younger. Here are some useful strategies to help children manage their conflicts:

 

  • Communicate the basic message that includes:

 

    • Acknowledgement that they both want their way by arguing with each other rather than to cooperate.
    • Hitting each other, calling each other names or bullying is not going to work.
    • They both have needs in the situation and they have to find out how they can both be acknowledged and met but without fighting.
    • Find out how to do this by themselves of you will decide on their behalf in a way they may not like.

 

 

  • Establish rules for managing the conflict. 

Having rules in place is a way of communicating your family values. So the parent needs to decide what behaviours are important and what they wish to enforce. This is an effective preventive strategy.

    • Handling conflicts and anger
      “No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
    • Family Values/morals
      “We treat each other with respect.”
    • Parents’ role when there is conflict
      If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
    • Hurt or property is damaged
      Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
    • Personal possessions and boundaries
      “We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
    • Complaining
      “No complaining to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.”  For example, a child telling his mother that his sibling just entered his room without permission.
    • Cooperation
      “Work it out between you two or if I get involved, neither of you might like what I decide.”

 

  • Conflict Resolution
    Sibling rivalry highlights the need for children to be taught the skill of conflict resolution. When they are young, the parent will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own. In summary, this process involves each child learning to express his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it. It encourages listening for and the expression of feelings to understand each other to discern what they both need. In this practice, it fosters the development of the sense of mutuality, and promotes the practice of collaboration and cooperation. 

    This skill helps your children to navigate current and future relationships with their peers. It is useful throughout their life.  It can equip them to be emotionally and relationally competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems in relationships without fighting.

    But in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed. 
    The parent also has to model for their children when it comes to handling conflict. The lesson is obviously more powerful when the parents practise this themselves.

    Use “fair fight” rules yourself.

    • Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
    • Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
    • Listening well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to seek to understand, we must first learn to listen (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people).

 

  • Attitudes and additional strategies that help to encourage health sibling relationships:

 

    • Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
    • Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
    • Do not show favouritism.
    • Stay calm and objective.
    • Recognizing the need is important in discussing ‘fairness.’
    • Don’t look for someone to blame or punish. Take personal responsibility to communicate well with each other.
    • Don’t get in long discussions about what happened (it can act as a reward for their arguments)
    • Establish basic relational rules: encourage communication, listening and understanding of feelings with empathy, taking turns.
    • Reinforce and remind them of a list of basic rules: “You can express your feelings to communicate clearly without having to be hurtful;” ”Use your words and not your fists;” “Speak to them in the way you would like to be spoken to.”
    • Encourage the children to solve their problems: be creative to find out “What would work for you both?”
    • Be aware of developmental stages: very young children find it hard to share as they need to have a sense of possession before they can share.
    • Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
    • Do not allow your children to pit one parent against the other. Discuss privately and directly between parents if they disagree with a parenting decision made by the other.
    • Do not bemoan to the children that they “fight all the time” (or they will live up to this pronouncement).
    • Reward them verbally for their efforts at collaboration to promote a loving or positive connection between themselves. Valuing them verbally models for them to value each other. This also promotes both their self-esteem.

These attitudes are commonly practised by parents who embrace an authoritative approach to parenting. But when the conflicts get out of control and do not stop, get professional help. The relational skills children learn in childhood is what they practice with as adults. The ability to be effective in relationships is crucial to personal success later when children grow up to marry, have families of their own or at work.

 


References:
Coping with Sibling Rivalry —https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/sibling-rivalry/coping-sibling-rivalry/

Sibling Rivalry —https://www.mottchildren.org/posts/your-child/sibling-rivalry#:~:text=Sibling%20rivalry%20is%20the%20jealousy,frustrating%20and%20stressful%20to%20parents.

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

Tips on Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children & Youth

Tips on Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children & Youth

Author: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

The 2nd Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS) which began in 2016 (reported in December 2018) was initiated by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The study focused only on those 18 years old and above. The findings show that 13.9% or 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mood (major or bipolar depression), anxiety (obsessive compulsive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder) or alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) in their lifetime. These are the top 3 mental disorders in Singapore among the conditions assessed in the study. The study also reported that more than three-quarters of those with a mental disorder in their lifetime did not seek professional help. In the first SMHS study in 2010, the lifetime prevalence rate of mental disorders in the Singapore population was 12% or 1 in 8 persons. 

 

In a 2012 publication on Depression by the Ministry of Health, it was reported that depression affects between 2.5% to 18% of youth*. Depression among youths in Singapore is considered common. But it is a serious mental health symptom because of it what it reflects of children’s experiences in their environment. In particular, it is a serious reflection of what they may experience in the family or relational environment. If not adequately treated, the depressed child is likely to bring their depression into adulthood. This means that the emotionally wounded or damaged child is likely to carry their wounds forward as adults. This is a likely scenario because it is estimated that an initial episode of depression increases the likelihood of a second episode by 50%. A second major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 3rd episode of depression by 75%. A third major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 4th episode by 100%. Not surprisingly, depression has been found to affect brain structures and functioning. It is this recurrent tendency of depression that the suicide risk often increases over time within the same individual with a history of depression.

 

The risk of depression in childhood needs to be a major consideration for all those concerned with the development of children. Depression among children is a serious health problem because it can impair the emotional development of the child. It can seriously affect identity formation which is foundational to how the emerging adolescent learns to relate to themselves, to others and to the world at large. Later as adults, depression can impair psycho-social as well as occupational functioning. Depression is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Also, depression can be triggered by, or lead to, other mental health conditions such as substance abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia or personality disorders.

 

Signs to watch for in children who may be depressed:

  • Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Changes in appetite — either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep — sleeplessness or excessive sleep
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

 

Not all depressed children display these symptoms. They are more likely to display different symptoms at different times at different settings. When depression is significant, there are often noticeable changes in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance.

 

The young child is most vulnerable to depression due to the quality of relationships with his or her caregivers. This vulnerability increases when the family environment is also accompanied by marital conflict, abuse, violence, illness and/or low socioeconomic status. However, it is in the quality of relationships with caregivers that is crucial because of what it can offer as a buffer or protection from other external events or causes. Therefore, the mental health of children begins with thoughtful parents who genuinely understand and care about their child’s emotional needs and development.

Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children:

1. Love your child unconditionally

  • A genuine attitude to decide in the best interests of your child, and not in the parent’s convenience. Children thrive under certain physical and emotional conditions. The long-term view is needed. Parenting must understand the healthy outcome effective parenting can produce. This helps to plan to optimise the emotional development of the child. Loving well in the best interests of the child provides the best head start towards orienting the child to relate to themselves and others in a healthy way. Children’s need to establish a healthy identity, to uncover and stretch their potential, and learn to self-actualise will require parents to stretch their own emotional ‘ceiling.’ This means parents who desire to raise emotionally healthy children have to face their own insecurities so as not to impose them on their own children. Parenting with the best interests of the child will often be at the inconvenience of parents especially if parents do not appreciate the value of nurturing relationships which children thrive on.
  • Loving your child well answers the deep longing for the child to later ask, “Am I worthwhile?” The need for children to recognise their own personal importance, value and worth prepares them to find that their later life will amount to significance. The child at risk of depression commonly struggle with this sense of self regard. Loving the child unconditionally is not based on the social or academic performance that society may hold out for children. Instead, mistakes are accepted as a natural part of their learning. If the parents placed their importance on their children only in reaching their own ambitions, or social or academic accomplishments, these indicate conditional expectations for them to find approval or acceptance. The will view their worth based on what they do instead of who they are. 

 

2. Ensure safe and secure physical and emotional surroundings

  • Secure attachment, which is offering an ongoing, consistent, soothing, accepting presence to the infant is the important beginning in the parent-child relationship that helps the infant to learn to feel safe and secure in the world. This is a foundational need for positive mental health in infants and children and later adulthood. Emotional safety from the secure bond offered by a secure parent helps young children to trust the caregiver and to experience their world as safe and predictable. Through this quality of care, a child is encouraged to first accept themselves as as lovable, as important. It also prepares them next to want to explore their world as they mature physically. This means parents who wish the best for their children have to prepare them to become independent over time.
  • Punitive, harsh or neglectful parents, especially when physical punishment is employed, leads to children questioning their worth or value and increases the risk for later depression. Parents who frequently employ shame, threats, insults or convey other derogatory messages to their children tend to raise a child who view themselves as defective. This is particularly damaging to children. Indeed, the DSM-V lists the sense of hopelessness or worthlessness as a common symptom of depression. Children can be raised to view themselves as defective, and that their life as meaningless.
  • Promoting a safe emotional environment emphasises listening and empathy as skills, and being age-appropriate supportive as an attitude. Being emotionally present and listening well will foster the child’s wish to share their experiences. It builds on the bond already started from providing a secure attachment. It encourages children to view the parent and other people as a safe resource they can count on later if needed. It answers the important question that children ask, “Is it OK to be me?” This also fosters familiarity with emotional intimacy that better prepare children for friendships and significant relationships later. Familiarity with close and supportive relationships also mean that the child is less likely to isolate themselves socially when they face problems later on. It is a wise parent who value interactional activities with their young children early on rather than let them become overly attached to computer games and the internet to amuse themselves. Excessive computer use at the detriment of other activities has been linked to increased loneliness, poor social development and depression. 

 

3. Nurture Self-confidence and High Self-esteem

  • Self-confidence is most easily found when children grow up feeling loved unconditionally.
  • The foundation provided when the child feels loved should be supported by the child’s search for mastery in the world when they are ready to explore. Starting with simple activities, their need for autonomy and mastery over their environment allows them to gain confidence over the tasks they wish to take on. It is important for parents to support this rather than to over-protect them from exploration. Parents who are over-protective of their children and anxious about possible mishaps will find it difficult to foster the autonomy and independence their children need. To build their self-confidence and nurture high self-esteem, parents should be ready to praise their children’s exploratory efforts, be honest with them about their own mistakes, participate in the children’s  activities, encourage them in activities where their interests match their ambitions and allow them to be tested by the tasks they take on.
  • The child’s ability to overcome, which allows them to be exposed to the frustrations and disappointments along the way, is something they have to face as well. Children should be encouraged to enjoy the process in the process of becoming. Learning to face their own frustrations, disappointments and failures will also serve to build self-confidence. Avoiding frustrations or disappointments or learning through determined effort and even failure tends to undermine self-confidence. The opportunities for children to grow through tasks and responsibilities is the beginning from which they can discover and establish their personal power and resilience.
  • Looking for ways to nurture your child’s self-confidence and develop high esteem answers the child need to know “Can I do it?” It requires that parents focus on building strength or resilience through the children’s autonomy –their learning to exercise control over their environment– rather than emphasize ease or comfort through avoidance.

 

4. Promote opportunities to Play with other children and self

  • Play is an integral part of emotional development of children. It is the primary means in which children learn to explore, to discover themselves in their world, and socially to cooperate, take turns and help in friendships. Studies have even suggested that inadequate play time for preschool children lead to more disruptive behaviour. Besides social interactions, play allows for the development of emotional awareness and fosters empathy where children learn about their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Play also allows children to enjoy the process of becoming one self. This is important in a goal-oriented world that emphasises only winning or success or grades. Indeed they can discover the truth that frustrations and disappointments are often the price we all pay to achieve success. In so doing, play allows children to learn how to emotionally regulate their feelings when they are presented with opportunities to learn to express thoughts, feeling and behaviours in socially appropriate ways.
  • Play is an important part of the child’s need to learn and experiment. Participation in play individually or in a group is an integral part of this learning process. Parents who are open to social interactions offer their children important advantages because they can facilitate their children’s emotional regulation and social learning when they play with their children on a regular basis. Children are more likely to enjoy other people contact when they already enjoy warm relationships with and have fun with their parents. TV or computer use should be monitored so that children are encouraged to engage more in active learning through participation. Computer games designers have made it easier for children, especially children who are neglected or are alone a lot, to be addicted to computer games. Excessive computer use has been found to be linked to depression in children.
  • Play offers the opportunity to address the questions that children ask, “Am I OK and is it good to be me?

 

5. Provide appropriate guidance and discipline

  • While children need to explore, develop new skills and become more independent and responsible, they also need to learn that certain behaviours are not acceptable. They need to be offered guidance and discipline that is fair and consistent from the family unit. They tend to take these social rules to their school and eventually to the workplace. Expectations may be expressed firmly but they need to be kind and realistic. Again, children learn best within encouraging and nurturing relationships. Parents need to be aware of their own maturity and growth and emotional status as they seek to help their children develop self-control, self-discipline or become kind. Their children cannot be expected to growth in those areas which parents have not grown themselves.
  • Explain “why” the child is being disciplined and the consequences of their actions. Criticism should be focused on the behaviour and not the person. Threats, nagging and the use of threats should be avoided. The power that the parent wields should emphasise guidance and instruction in the best interests of the child that allow for children to learn from their mistakes. Those parents who practice excessive domination or coercion should understand that it is not helpful in the long run if children are forced to accept a place of surrender in order for them to survive in the relationship. They need to be encouraged to exercise their own power when appropriate. What has been described as authoritarian parenting, characterised by high demands with poor feedback or nurturance has also been found associated with a higher incidence of depression in children. This is in sharp contrast to authoritative parenting which is characterised by high demands accompanied by responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs. This approach is found to produce children who are responsible, they can regulate themselves, they can make good decisions on their own, and they are respectful to others and to rules.

 

Parenting is primarily a personal and emotional project in raising one’s children. It is foundationally an emotional process to secure the child before a young child eventually matures to believe in themselves. This is crucial before they begin to actively learn to navigate themselves in an increasingly complex world. It is widely understood as a parent’s most important life task since the emotional outcome show up in emotionally healthy or unhealthy individuals even before adulthood beckons. There is an emotional ‘birthing’ process where the Self of a child arrives at a healthy place in their identity formation. Or the opposite will happen. Quality parenting in this ‘birthing’ process create the foundation in which the next generation of children find the basis for their own survival, happiness and fulfilment. As such, parents learning to parent with optimal outcomes will do well to emotionally mature and be healthy themselves so that their children have the best chance to establish themselves in a healthy place in preparation to thrive in life. 

—-

References:

Institute of Mental Health, Latest nationwide study shows 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, 2018. https://www.imh.com.sg/uploadedFiles/Newsroom/News_Releases/SMHS%202016_Media%20Release_FINAL_web%20upload.pdf

The Ministry of Health, Depression: MOH Clinical Practice Guidelines, 2011.

Woo BSC, Chang WC, Fung DSS, Koh JBK, Leong JSF, Kee CHY, et al. Development and validation of a depression scale for Asian adolescents. J Adolesc. 2004 Dec; 27(6):677-89.

Woo BSC, Ng TP, Fung DSS, Chan YH, Lee YP, Koh JBK, et al. Emotional and behavioral problems in Singaporean children based on parent, teacher and child reports. Singapore Med J. 2007 Dec; 48(12):1100-6. 

Child Suicide is Preventable: How to handle suicidal ideation in children

Child Suicide is Preventable: How to handle suicidal ideation in children

Author : Joachim Lee, Senior Pscyhotherapist

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) reports that the number of suicides in Singapore rose 10 per cent in 2018, with suicides among boys aged 10 to 19 at a record high. Suicide mortality among youths and males is a “significant societal concern”, SOS said, highlighting that for every 10 suicides in 2018, at least 7 involved males. Among boys aged between 10 and 19 years old, there were 19 suicides last year – the highest since records began in 1991 and almost triple the seven cases recorded in 2017.

Suicide does affect children and adolescents, and avoiding the topic does nobody any favours – burying your head in the sand won’t help them learn how to get help if they find themselves needing it. One common misconception about the discussion of suicide is that talking about it plants the idea in people’s heads, causing children and adolescents to think about it. The simple truth is that parents won’t ever know if their child harbours suicidal thinking if they are too afraid to broach the topic. Suicidal behavior in children is complicated. It can be impulsive and associated with feelings of confusion, sadness, or anger. The so-called “red flags” people are cautioned to look for can be subtle in young children. While a young adult might say something along the lines of, “You’ll be better off when I’m gone,” in contrast, a child might say some something similar to, “No one cares if I’m here.”

Warning Signs

While the warning signs in children can be subtle, learning to identify potential red flags plays a crucial role in intervention.

Changes in baseline behaviour:

Take note of behavioural changes that aren’t short-lived.  While suicidal behaviour is often associated with symptoms of depression, you might also notice the following changes in your child:

  • Changes in sleeping habits (too much, too little, insomnia)
  • Changes in eating habits (overeating or eating too little)
  • Withdrawing from family and friends (social isolation)
  • Psychosomatic symptoms: headaches, stomach-aches, other aches and pains that can’t be explained

Changes at school:

It’s perfectly normal for children to experience ups and downs during the learning process, but a pattern of negative change can be a red flag that a child needs help. Make a note of the following:

  • Drop in academic performance
  • Decreased interaction with teachers and kids at school
  • Lack of interest in school
  • Refusal to attend school
  • Loss of interest in normal daily activities (playing, sports, co-curricular activities)

Preoccupation with death:

It’s natural for children to think about death at times, particularly when they are coping with loss or hear about tragic events in the news. Preoccupation with death, researching ways to die, and/or talking about their own death can be red flags. Watch for the following warning signs that involve thoughts about death:

  • Frequent questions about or looking up ways to die
  • Statements about dying or what will happen if the child dies (Examples: “You won’t miss me when I die, I wish I was dead, I won’t bother you anymore when I’m gone.”)

Feelings of hopelessness:

Children who have suicidal thoughts might communicate feelings of hopelessness for the future. They might also make statements about helplessness. These kinds of statements indicate that the child feels as if there is nothing to be done to improve their outcome, and no one can help.

Child-sized wills:

Some children give away their favourite possessions or tell parents, siblings, or friends who should get their favourite possessions. While talk of dividing up possessions might seem like fantasy play to parents, it can signal thoughts of suicide when combined with other changes in behaviour.

Writing or drawing about death or suicide:

Young children often struggle to verbalize intense emotions, but they are likely to take to the diary or drawing block to explore these emotions. Poems, stories, or artwork depicting suicide or, frequent writings and drawings about death should be evaluated.

Significant changes in mood:

Kids experience changes in mood as they grow and work through stressors, but significant changes in mood signal a problem. If your child suddenly shifts from calm and relatively happy to aggressive, completely withdrawn, or very anxious, it’s important to get help.

In addition to the warning signs that a child might experience suicidal ideation, there are also certain factors that can elevate the risk.

  • Previous suicide attempt (regardless of how serious)
  • Experiencing a loss (this can include grief and the loss of a relationship due to divorce or family discord or break-up)
  • Chronic bullying
  • Family history of suicide or suicide attempts
  • Violence or witnessing violence
  • Impulsivity
  • Acute rejection
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling like a burden

 

Communication Tips with your Child 

Any signs of suicidal ideation or behaviour should be taken seriously.

Parents should ask specific, direct questions about suicidal thoughts – “Are you thinking about hurting or killing yourself?”

Parents should also talk openly about depression by asking questions like, “Are you feeling depressed or very sad lately?” These questions show your child that you understand and that you care. Conveying empathy in a time of emotional crisis is crucial. You may be concerned about saying the “right” thing. But the truth is that just having an open and honest discussion with your child can provide them with much-needed support.

Keep the Talk Age-Appropriate

  • Make sure that your child understands what you are saying and is not confused or bored by the discussion.
  • Use words that your child can understand. Words such as “depression” or “emotional reaction” are probably too complex for a younger child but may be appropriate for an older child or adolescent.
  • Try comparing your child’s depression to something that your child is already familiar with like a physical illness such as the flu or an ear infection.

Keep the Conversation Positive

  • Depression is a serious illness that causes emotional and physical pain, but try to keep the conversation focused on the positive.
  • By maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook in your discussions, you will avoid unnecessarily alarming your child.

Prioritize the Positive

Another important way to prevent suicidal behaviour is to prioritize interacting with your child in positive ways. Sometimes we get into a sort of vicious cycle with a child. The child does something concerning; the parent gets critical; the kid does something more concerning; the parents get more upset. All interactions turn contentious. Interacting in positive ways means doing fun things together, hanging out and chatting about things that aren’t controversial, that aren’t difficult.

Be Honest

  • Don’t make promises you cannot keep.
  • Don’t go into detail about topics that you are not certain of.
  • Do tell your child what you do know.
  • Make a list of questions to discuss with your child’s mental health professional.

Be Compassionate

  • Your child needs to know that you recognize and respect their feelings.
  • Even if you do not quite understand their thoughts, don’t dismiss their feelings.
  • Avoid comments like “What do you have to be depressed about?” or “Don’t be ridiculous.”
  • Dismissive comments can cause a child to hide their feelings or become defensive.

It may seem obvious to you that you love your children, and that they know you love them. But when they’re having a hard time, children need to hear over and over again from you how much you love them, and how much you care about them. It’s not good enough to just say, “You know I love you.” You need to convey that in small and big ways. These days, we all have so many things we’re juggling that our children can end up unsure of where they fit in, and whether you really have time for them. Let them know how important they are to you.

Be a Good Listener

  • Allow your child to talk openly and express their opinions and thoughts.
  • Avoid interrupting, judging or punishing them for their feelings.
  • Listening demonstrates that they have someone they can confide in help to sort out their feelings.

If there are any safety concerns, do not provide judgment or discipline; simply remove your child from immediate danger, do not leave them alone, and get them immediate help.

Never dismiss suicidal thoughts in a child and any suicidal thought or behaviour should be brought to the attention of your mental health provider immediately. If needed, bring the child to an emergency room or call an ambulance.

If for some reason the above options are not available, make a referral to the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) by writing to pat@sos.org.sg, or calling its 24-hour hotline at 1800-221 4444.

The author hopes that the suicide prevention/awareness workshops he conducts at schools and corporations are doing some good.

 

Bibliography

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/suicides-number-2018-teenagers-boys-highest-11761480

https://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/injury_prevention/children/fact_sheets/10-19_years/suicide_prevention_10-19_years.htm

https://www.psycom.net/children-and-suicide

https://www.verywellmind.com/suicidal-thoughts-and-depression-in-children-1066661

https://childmind.org/article/youre-worried-suicide/

https://www.sos.org.sg/get-help/helping-someone-in-crisis