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Young Kids Can Have Suicidal Thoughts and Parents Are Often Unaware

A new study from Washington University in St. Louis finds that suicidal thoughts may begin in children as young as 9 or 10.

Historically, the belief has been that people don’t need to ask kids about suicidal thoughts before adolescence, said Dr. Deanna Barch, chair and professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences and professor of radiology in the School of Medicine.

“Our data suggests that’s absolutely not true. Kids are having these thoughts. They’re not at the same rates as adults, but they are nontrivial,” she said.

Further, the study found that family conflict and parental monitoring are significant predictors of suicidal thoughts, and the majority of children in the study had caregivers who either didn’t know, or didn’t report, the suicidal thoughts of the children in their care.

“There’s already been press about suicidal ideation in teenagers,” said Barch. “But there’s almost no data about rates of suicidal ideation in this age range in a large population sample.”

The research has significant implications, as suicide deaths among children has reached a 30-year high in the United States. By middle and high school, 10 to 15 percent of kids have had suicidal thoughts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, looked at the data of 11,814 children (ages 9 and 10) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a national, longitudinal study on adolescent brain health in which caretakers also participate.

Dividing suicidal thoughts and actions into several categories, the team found that 2.4 to 6.2 percent of the children reported having thoughts about suicide, from wishing they were dead to devising but not carrying out a plan.

When it came to actions, they found that 0.9 percent of the children said they had tried to commit suicide; 9.1 percent reported non-suicidal self-injury.

Before beginning this research, Barch said she did not know what to expect, but she did expect to see significant amounts of suicidal thoughts in this age group.

“There were two reasons I was sure,” she said. “When you look at the CDC rate of kids in middle and high school who have these thoughts, it’s pretty high. It’s clear that they weren’t arising out of the blue.”

The second reason she was prepared: In previous work, she had already seen suicidal thoughts in preschoolers.

The research also shows differences between males and females. Specifically, males showed more suicidal thoughts and more non-suicidal self-injury than the girls; these trends reverse as people age, studies show.

“We don’t really know why,” Barch said. “By the time adolescence hits, the rates go up for everyone, but they go up disproportionately for girls. The discrepancy was completely unexpected.”

In addition, this is the age when kids and their parents/ caregivers tend to give different reports of internal experiences, Barch said. The disconnection between self-reports of suicidal thoughts and caregivers’ reports of their kids’ thoughts differed significantly. In more than 75 percent of cases where children self-reported suicidal thoughts or behaviors, the caregivers did not know about the child’s internal experience.

In fact, after adjusting for sex, family history, and other variables, family conflict was a predictor of suicidal thoughts and non-suicidal self-injury. Monitoring by a caretaker was also predictive of those measures, as well as suicide attempts.

Barch suggested parents, caregivers and people working with children should be aware of the possibility that a 9-year-old is thinking about suicide.

“If you have kids who are distressed in some way, you should be asking about this,” she said. “You can help identify kids that might be in trouble.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Young Kids Can Have Suicidal Thoughts and Parents Are Often Unaware

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Young Kids Can Have Suicidal Thoughts and Parents Are Often Unaware. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Feb 2020 (Originally: 8 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Feb 2020
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