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Is it just a temper tantrum?


Can you tell if your child is suicidal?


YOU'VE scolded your child, perhaps punished her.

And in a burst of tears, she threatens to harm herself or worse, commit suicide.

Do you take it seriously?

How do you tell the difference between a genuine suicide attempt and an out-of-control temper tantrum?

Counsellors and psychiatrists here say there are signs which can distinguish the two.

Ms Iris Lin, 29, head of the youth department at Fei Yue Community Services said: "Usually temper tantrums result when a child does not get what they want, when there is no instant gratification."

These could stem from such things as demands to eat fast food. Or as in the recent case of the 11-year-old girl - not being allowed to go out.

These young people typically show such tantrums by locking themselves in their rooms, sulking, not talking, or even venting their anger online via social networking sites like Facebook, said Ms Lin, a counsellor of eight years.

One way in which parents can draw the distinction between a tantrum and suicidal intent, is to observe the child and facial expressions closely, said Mr Daniel Koh, 39, a psychiatrist from Insights Mind Centre.

He said: "When someone is really distressed they are unable to reason or focus on what you are saying, so you can't get through to them. Sometimes this is accompanied by crying or hysteria.

"If it's less serious - it could be verbal threats like, 'If you don't do this or give me this, I will jump or I will run away' - it's more conditional."

Nevertheless, whether such threats of suicide are serious or merely impulsive, all counsellors advise parents to exercise caution.

Mr Benny Bong, 53, a family and marital therapist of 25 years said: "The tendency for parents is to not take threats so seriously. But even if the young person doesn't mean to kill himself, there is always the risk of accidental death.

"Sitting on a window ledge could lead to him slipping and falling."

Children who have a genuine intention to harm themselves exhibit signs that parents should watch out for, say these experts.


This could be aggressive and violent behaviour, said Dr Nelson Lee, 40, medical director and psychiatrist at The Psychological Wellness Centre.

He cited the example of the youngest suicide attempt he saw. In that case three years ago, a seven-year-old boy tried to jump from a HDB block of flats. Fortunately, he was stopped in time.

Prior to his suicide attempt, the boy would physically hit his parents and siblings whenever he was agitated, recalled Dr Lee.


Suicidal children may also try to hurt themselves by cutting or pinching themselves till they are bruised or by banging their heads on the wall, said Mr Koh.

Change in behaviour

The child's usual mode of behaviour, eating and sleeping patterns could also be disrupted, said Dr Lee who has seen 10 to 15 cases of attempted suicide of children 12 years and younger in the last five years.

He said: "Parents should watch out if their child who is normally active, now isolates himself or herself. Or if the child is usually quiet but turns aggressive and loud.

"If sleeping and eating patterns change drastically, these would also be signs that parents should take a look at."

Express dark thoughts

The child could also be explicit about his suicidal tendencies.

For instance, Ms Lin said the child could express a desire to "end things" or "leave this world behind."

She said: "Parents should observe if their child seems depressed and expresses such dark thoughts on their blogs or art work."

Giving away things

Mr Koh added the child may also go about 'tying up loose ends' such as giving away physical possessions prior to killing themselves.

If their child exhibits these signs, Mr Bong said parents have to be mindful. He said: "Don't let the child's emotions escalate dangerously because by the time you want them to calm down, it may be difficult to do so.

"If they start breathing or heaving deeply or scratching themselves, a time-out is better. It's not good to go into a shouting match."

Such a time-out doesn't aggravate the situation and parents can discipline and talk to the child when all parties are calm, he said.

He added: "Don't discipline your child in anger. Your child may think that's the only emotion you feel for them."

Mr Koh said parents should also show their support and be patient if their child seems potentially suicidal.

He said: "Telling them to stop thinking about it (suicide) is not helpful. In fact, the child may even see it as a form of rejection, that the parent doesn't care."

In addition, parents should set boundaries on the child's behaviour early so that the child will not keep threatening them with self-harm if they don't get their way, said Mr Koh.

More stories:

Is it just a temper tantrum?
'Baby etiquette': Tricks to handle your kid's tantrums
Suicidal blogs may not mean suicidal kids
Get help if family is under strain
Those alive are real victims of suicide
Parenthood is a box of chocs
Sweet nothings count for something

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