We have 3 children age 12, 11 and 9. The older two are girls and regularly fall out, with the younger of the two having huge meltdowns recently, screaming abuse at her older sister. In the last two meltdowns, she got so upset she also said she wished she was dead. We don’t know how to deal with her. Myself and their dad are separated for the last year or so, and, on the whole, the children seem to be coping ok with no change in school performance, sports, friends etc. How should we be responding to our middle child?
Whenever I hear about children whose behaviour seems to have changed, I am always intrigued to know what may have contributed to that change. Often times, changes in their environment, their home dynamic or their school dynamic can have a big impact.
While the fact that your two daughters have some sibling tensions may not be new, the extent to which your younger daughter seems to be now reacting does seem new. The added layer of appearing so distressed she is talking about killing herself is also new.
It is useful to know that you and her dad have separated. Even when this is an amicable arrangement, and post-separation family structures (like time with each parent) are settled, it can still have a huge impact on children. Even when children seem to have adapted to the new circumstances, they may still be carrying residual stress or distress about the changes to family life.
Since this is the only major change that you mention, it is definitely worth exploring with all your children how they are continuing to adapt to the new structures and how they now feel about all that has happened. Adapting and accommodating to parents separating is a process (rather than an event that has a finish point) that may need ongoing emotional support for children.
Talking with your second daughter, especially, about the fact that she gets really upset (usually in rows with her sister) and that perhaps this reflects deeper upsets or distress that she might feel, could help her to connect these feelings to more than just the dynamic of her relationship with her sister.
Responding to suicidal comments that children make can feel enormously stressful and frightening for parents. It is okay to explore what a child means by a statement like “I wish I was dead”. Often we discover that they really mean that they just want the problems, or the distress they feel, to go away, not that they actually want to be dead, or have made any plans to die.
In the circumstances it is possible that her comments reflect that she feels really terrible about “stuff” in her life. Empathising with that, for her, may also help her to realise that you can understand how she might feel and that might further reassure her that you will be able to help her by listening to the things that are upsetting her.
You may want to get some professional advice, to be able to better determine the risk of your daughter actually harming herself, or killing herself, especially if you are unsure or very worried. You can go to your GP to get a referral to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for an emergency appointment. You could also go to a private Consultant Child Psychiatrist, or a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with children.
Even making such an appointment shows her you are taking her comments seriously, that you have really heard her and that you recognise that you might need some help to help her.