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Taking a Child's Threats Seriously

QUESTION: We are raising our six-year-old grandson. He keeps threatening to kill himself and tells us that he would be better off dead. This usually happens when things don't go his way. He also has started to pull his hair very hard and rap himself on his head with his fists when he gets angry. Should we take these threats seriously? And if so, how should we deal with this behavior?

ANSWER: Your grandson's actions as well as his words are a clear and unmistakable cry for help. Definitely take him seriously! Consider a consultation with a child psychologist or counselor to help you figure out the meaning of your grandson's behavior.

Clearly your grandson is angry and upset about something. And he is directing his anger at himself. Perhaps there is something he is feeling he has not yet been able to put into words or does not feel it is safe to express to you. His upset may also be an expression of a need to feel more in control of his life. Or he may feel as though he is somehow a burden to you and that you would be better off if he were out of the picture! The latter could be the case if you unexpectedly found yourself as your grandson's primary caretakers and have some understandable resentments, or even if you were simply unprepared to fill the shoes you are now wearing. It's also possible that your grandson may be suffering from some form of childhood depression.

Understanding the emotional meaning of his behavior is the first step to helping him cope with his feelings. But meanwhile, his self-destructive behavior is dangerous and needs to be stopped immediately. Just as you would not allow a child to hit another child, he should not be allowed to hit or hurt himself. Any physical hair pulling or hitting himself should be stopped immediately, even if it means holding your child's arms so he cannot hurt himself. If this is necessary, do so gently but firmly, and with as much compassion as possible.

Play therapy is likely to be the treatment of choice. You can help by making sure that your grandson has toys to play with that allow him to express his aggression without hurting himself or others. Toy soldiers or action figures that fight each other may not be popular among adults who fear that such toys lead to violence, but they may serve in fact as a healthy and necessary release. Consider other activities to channel aggressive energy. Sports or children's classes in karate or aikido can also serve to channel aggression positively while building character and self-esteem. You could even offer yourself in a wrestling match to safely release pent-up pressures and make physical contact with your grandson that may prove helpful.

But it is important that you consider what his self-destructive behavior is about. Have there been any major traumas or adjustments in his living situation? The addition of a new member to the family, increased fighting between spouses, or other family pressures may be a part of the problem. What does his teacher say about his social and academic adjustment at school? Does he have friends? Does he receive positive attention for his strengths, as well as enough help with any weaknesses? What is the relationship between your grandson and his parents? And whatever the situation with his parents, could feelings of abandonment or questions about the fact that he is being raised by grandparents be an issue now? Young children often act out their anger when feeling ignored or insecure. What could be contributing to your grandson's sense of insecurity at this time?

Do not stop short of getting the help you need to find out what is going on with this little guy. Sometimes we need to get help understanding the child we are raising!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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