A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the mother of a little boy scheduled to see me for evaluation.The letter arrived a couple of days before his first appointment. In the letter, the mother shared several concerns about her 7-year-old son, concerns such as “can’t get along with his siblings,” “prefers being left alone,” “everything is a battle.” The last item on Mom’s list was underlined and asterisked: “frequently says he hates his life.”
As is my custom, when Mom and Garrett arrived for the appointment, I invited them to my office, and opened the session by asking Garrett a few simple questions such as his age and grade, where he goes to school, and who is in his family. He answered my questions with excellent eye contact and a big but serious voice. I then asked if he knew why his mother had brought him to see me. His response:
Because I hate my life. Garrett, age 7
Mom was visibly shaken by Garrett’s response even though she had heard her son say this before. There are a number of similar comments that alarm parents. Here are some examples:
- I’d rather be dead.
- I wish I had never been born.
- I want to die.
- I should just kill myself.
Naturally, parents become quite concerned when their children make such statements. In fact, it is pretty unusual for children to make such dramatic comments. Even among adolescents, the most dramatic of all young people, such comments can be a sign of trouble. The challenge for parents is to figure out what type of trouble this kind of comment signals.
There are two reasons that children say things like “I’d rather be dead.” Far more often than not, such a despairing comment is made by a child who is feeling angry, sad, and/or disappointed in the moment. Here’s an example:
Mom: It turns out that we cannot go to the movie this evening after all. I didn’t realize that I have to take your sister to play practice.
Charlie (angrily): That’s not fair! Why does everything have to revolve around Charlotte?
Mom: I know you’re disappointed, but I am only one person and I can’t take Charlotte to rehearsal and also get you to a movie.
Charlie: I hate my life!
In this example, Charlie likely feels sad, angry, and disappointed. In this moment, he may even hate his life. In most instances, a young person experiencing a disappointment like the one in the example will bounce back pretty quickly. Perhaps Mom will offer to stream a movie that they can watch together at home, and this offer will lift his spirits. Or, perhaps he will forget about his disappointment altogether when he gets home and starts working on his model car.
Despairing comments from a young person may signal a bigger problem, however. Sometimes, a child or adolescent experiences a persistent negative mood – depression and/or irritability – for such an extended period of time that they do begin to hate their life, or more precisely, how they feel. This is how my conversation with Garrett about his mood progressed:
Me: You hate your life. Can you tell me a little more about that?
G: Nothing works out for me. I’m the slowest reader in my class and I didn’t make the travel team for basketball.
Me: Sounds like you are having a really rough time lately.
G: I just can’t stand feeling upset all the time.
Me: When you say “upset,” what do you mean?
G: I don’t know.
Me: Sad? Angry? Some other upset feeling?
G: All of those.
While it is really rare in kids as young as Garrett, depression can affect children and adolescents. After a thorough evaluation as well as a workup to rule out medical causes of Garrett’s mood disturbance, it was clear that this little boy, a typically happy-go-lucky and energetic kid, was experiencing clinical depression.
When a young person says “I hate my life” or makes some other despairing comment, it is important to figure out what he is trying to communicate. Is he sharing feelings that are intense but fleeting and triggered by an upsetting event? Or, is she describing a persistent and painful mood state? These are not always easy to distinguish. After reading the suggestions below, I encourage you to trust your instincts; if you still have concerns, consult a mental health professional such as a school counselor or a psychologist.
If you hear a despairing comment from your child, first think about what happened just before (antecedents) and immediately after (consequences) the comment. This is a simple form of behavioral analysis and is sometimes referred to as the ABC model. Using the example of Charlie above, the analysis would look like this:
hearing the news that Mom cannot take him to a movie/feeling disappointed (Antecedent) → “I hate my life” comment (Behavior) → cheering up when he and Mom decide to stream a movie (Consequence)
If this is the typical pattern, a despairing comment follows an upsetting event and is followed by a fairly quick return to a more positive mood, then the appropriate intervention is to help the child find more precise, less alarming, language to express his upset feelings. If you have a child who expresses upset feelings with despairing comments, it is important not to become overly solicitous in response to those comments. Imagine what would happen over time if Charlie’s mother apologized profusely and/or bought him things to make up for his disappointments. In all likelihood, Charlie would begin to make despairing comments more often. Instead, a child like Charlie needs to learn to say “I hate it when everything is all about Charlotte” or even “It’s not fair that you make promises and break them.” These are more accurate statements, they keep the focus on the problem at hand, and they create an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving.
If you go through the steps to consider the antecedents and consequences of despairing comments and you do not see the pattern described above, then think about whether you have observed other signs of depression in your child. In children and adolescents, these include loss of pleasure in activities, social withdrawal, low energy, changes in sleep and appetite, irritability, and impaired concentration. Don’t be fooled if your child’s mood appears to lift when her friends are around. Many a depressed teen have told me that they “fake it” around their friends due to social pressure to fit in. If you see any of these signs, it would be wise to consult a professional. Depression is both a serious and a highly treatable condition. Left untreated, it causes suffering, interferes with development and learning, and strains relationships.
Still not sure what to do when your own child makes despairing comments? When in doubt, find someone you can trust to help you sort out what your child’s comments mean. Word of mouth is often the best way to find a mental health care provider, so ask the school counselor, your child’s pediatrician, or a friend that has consulted a professional for a referral. If you are ever concerned that your child is in immediate danger of harming himself and he does not already have a relationship with a mental health professional you can reach out to in an emergency, take him to the nearest emergency room for evaluation. While this would be a difficult step to take, it is wise to trust your instincts.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]