I opened the closet door to find my son Devon squatting in the shadowy darkness with a belt looped loosely around his neck. He was 9. Confident that he wasn’t actually trying to hurt himself, and was only trying to get attention, I hid my fear. I knew if I showed my alarm, he’d be more likely to do it again. And again.
“Stop being silly,” I said in as carefree of a tone as I could manage. I took the belt, which wasn’t even buckled, from him. Unfortunately, in spite of my nonplussed response, his behavior escalated until I had no choice but to bring him to the mental health emergency room.
The intake nurse explained to me that he was experiencing “suicidal ideations,” that is thoughts or plans to commit suicide. “But he’s not actually thinking of harming himself,” I insisted, surprised by her diagnosis. “He wouldn’t even know how to kill himself with a belt. He’s only nine.”
Looking down her nose at me, the nurse said, “We don’t really know that, do we?”
It’s a complicated scenario faced by many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) – kids like Devon who are sometimes willing to up the ante sky-high, even threatening self-harm and suicide. This is because kids who have RAD are desperate to control the people and situations around them. While there are certainly some who are suicidal, it’s not uncommon for kids with RAD to use these behaviors as a coping mechanism, with no genuine intention of harming themselves. And, the payoff can be huge. They avoid consequences, side-step difficult conversations, garner sympathy and attention, and gain control of virtually any situation.
My son, now 16, routinely threatens to kill himself over the smallest of triggers – breakfast cereal he doesn’t like, being told no, having to wait his turn. He’s attempted to slit his wrists with paper cuts, tried to hang himself using a belt on a closet rod, and tried to strangle himself with his shirt. Perhaps the scariest incident was when he climbed to the top of the rail of a second floor stairwell at school and threatened to jump. During the subsequent suicide assessments, Devon always admits he was bored, mad, or frustrated – not actually wanting to kill or hurt himself. Therapists, nurses, and social workers who have witnessed these incidents agree they are motivated by a desire for attention or a desire for control. We also all agree that the attempts are inherently dangerous, regardless of his motivation.
In some cases, his behavior is deliberate and calculated. Other times, it’s caused by dysregulation, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, and poor impulse control. In these situations, it has been helpful to me to remember that my child’s innate need to control situations and people is borne of childhood trauma. I am better able to respond from a place of empathy when I keep in mind the neglect or abuse that has causes my child to go to such desperate lengths.
What to do
Though the initial incidents of suicidal ideation are alarming, parents of kids with RAD can become weary and calloused over time. It is, after all, counterintuitive to give credence to threats that seem designed to manipulate or control, but these behaviors are simply too serious to ever be minimized or ignored. Even if you’re 1000% certain your child has no intention to kill himself, you must take suicidal ideations seriously every time, and here’s why:
You may be misinterpreting the situation and they may really desire to harm themselves.
They can accidentally hurt themselves, even if that’s not their intention.
These behaviors are clearly indicative of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.
If your child is having suicidal ideations here are some steps you can take to keep them safe and find a way forward.
Know what mental health resources are available in your area including contact information, hours, and crisis services offered.
Be vigilant. What this looks like in your home will be unique to your situation, but it may include locking away knives, removing belts, or installing collapsing closet rods.
In the Moment
De-escalate the situation at all costs in order to stop your child from endangering themselves.
Lower your expectations – now’s not the time to quibble about tone of voice, cursing, and other unacceptable behaviors. Your only goal is to keep your child safe.
Seek emergency help by calling a crisis team or taking your child to the mental health emergency room. In some cases, you can schedule an emergency session with an outpatient therapist.
After the fact
Follow-through with recommendations for therapy, medication management, and other services.
Identify and address underlying triggers.
Update your safety plan based on the latest episode.
When our children use suicidal ideations to manipulate and control situations it can be tiresome and frustrating. It’s easy to begin reacting to these behaviors like we do any other attention-seeking behavior. But, with suicidal ideation the risks are simply too high. Always take them seriously and make safety your priority.
Originally published by IACD here.