The number of deaths each year is staggering, and the thousands of family members left behind are taking action. It’s time parents put an end to the “fun” that’s claiming too many adolescent lives.
Just two short months ago on February 7, 11-year-old Daniel Sheppard of White House, Tenn., took his own life … by mistake. He was playing the choking game – a dangerous and often deadly activity where children make themselves pass out. Ironically called a “game,” this exercise in self-asphyxiation is claiming the lives of children as young as 9 at the rate of up to 1,000 per year. Innocent games like hide-and-seek or ghost in the graveyard are games of the past as more and more children give into peer pressure in search of the “ultimate high.” Whether referring to this game as the fainting game, the passing out game or the choking game, the desired affects and too often the outcomes are all the same.
Gambling with their lives, children allow their friends to choke them or willingly hang themselves in an attempt to achieve the euphoric state it causes. Cutting off one’s air supply creates a lack of oxygen to the brain. In doing this, children hope to experience what they believe is a safe alternative to the “buzz” of drinking or taking drugs. “The horrible irony is that these children don’t realize just how dangerous this actually is,” says Child Advocate Specialist Diana Derby. Instead of the desired “high” children playing these games end up accidentally committing suicide.
Who is at Risk?
Reading postings on message boards dedicated to these dangerous rituals, one is taken aback at the cavalier attitude of those who have “played” the game and “won.” “The best feeling ever ” – “That kid who died didn’t know what he was doing ” – and “A feeling better than sex ” – are just a few of the frightening words of encouragement children can find when surfing the Internet.
According to data gathered by medical examiners and coroners nationwide, the fainting game results in death more than 75 percent more often in boys than girls. Ironically, more girls than boys actually attempt to “play.” “Unfortunately, boys are bred to be tough and cool. Even if they’re scared or wanting to back out, they don’t because of peer pressure,” says Derby. “Girls are more inclined to plan out the game, begin, but then back down due to fear.”
The inclination to experiment with any type of dangerous behavior is often fueled by peer pressure. “Children who want to ‘fit in’, act ‘cool’ or who are looking for attention turn to alcohol, drugs, crime and dangerous games such as fainting and choking,” says Derby. “The key is recognizing the symptoms of low self confidence and esteem.”
Seeing the Signs
Perhaps one of the most deadly aspects of these games is the fact that the warning signs aren’t always as clear as when a child is experimenting with drugs, alcohol or tobacco. A child contemplating the fainting game doesn’t slur his words, stumble or smell of alcohol or tobacco. “Although some children may express an interest in strangulation or engage in discussions relating to ‘how does someone choke,’ many children do not outwardly express their interest in this game to their parents or teachers,” explains Tania Soja, case manager at a residential treatment facility for children and teenagers.
The elusive nature of the game sends kids sneaking access to Web sites touting the success of former “players” and to secretive plots away from the watchful eyes of adults. They look for extreme privacy, especially when friends are over, while planning when and where to play.
Parents might notice a scarf or tie lying next to a sleeping child, in his closet or under his bed that shouldn’t be there. A child might seem groggy or unusually tired when coming out of his room with friends. “Some of the warning signs are suspicious marks on the side of the neck, changes in personality or overly aggressive behavior. Also, any kind of rope, belt or scarf laying next to a child without a reason why it would be there, headaches and flushed face, bloodshot eyes, raspy voice and a thud or loud noise in a bedroom indicating someone fell or hit their head,” Soja explains.
Too many parents aren’t aware that this could touch their children. “I had never heard of this. I wish I had,” shares an honest and heartbroken Loretta Burns. Losing her son tragically more than 15 years ago, Burns works tirelessly as an advocate to inform and educate parents of the risks associated with the fainting game. “I want parents to understand they can prevent this type of useless tragedy,” Burns passionately explains.
Parents who have endured this painful ordeal all loved their children unconditionally and worked to provide nurturing, stable homes. Mental health experts and health care professionals agree that while loving a child is a wonderful and vital aspect of development, communication is the powerful tool necessary in the fight against this and other dangerous risks that children are willing to take.
As a retired high school counselor, Carol Brillante shares Burns’ passion to protect families from this heartbreaking situation. “This is one of a few taboo subjects that many parents aren’t comfortable discussing. Some fear that talking about this plants the seed to experiment, and others don’t want to envision their child ever attempting such acts,” explains Brillante.
A preemptive conversation with your child that highlights the disastrous effects of this game and offers correct information is a terrific place to begin. “Parents and children must know that kids are seriously injured or impaired and die from doing this. Although it might be uncomfortable to talk about, everyone needs to understand the dangers,” Burns staunchly urges.
Young boys need to be aware that it is better to be called a “chicken” or a “baby” by their friends than wind up endangering their lives. “Children need to have confidence in their decisions to stay safe,” Brillante adds. Explain to your child that it is not fun, cool or popular to take dangerous risks. Asking questions such as, “Why do you think your friends would want to risk your life or theirs,” “Why do you want to feel ‘high'” and “Do you feel that you need to go along with these actions in order to have friends” will help you understand your child’s mindset.
“If parents are at all uncomfortable with talking about this or with what they learn during a conversation, they should look for assistance immediately,” suggests Burns. Ask a trusted family member to talk to your child about these deadly games. An informative visit to the pediatrician or guidance counselor’s office can provide the clear concise information your child needs to fully understand the dangers.
Children who survive or “perfect” playing this game can become addicted to the high experienced. “The temporary, induced state of euphoria becomes the focus of a child’s attention. Achieving it is just as important as taking another drink or finding more drugs,” warns Derby.
“One conversation isn’t enough. Parents need to continually remind their children of the dangers associated with taking some typical childhood risks,” says Burns.
Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to this publication.
a local family’s grief
It was a cold evening in February when Kristy Beasley got the phone call that has forever changed her life. Her middle son Daniel, 11, was dead. He and his 6-year-old brother Dawson were playing in their room. Dawson was playing Playstation, and Daniel was playing the choking game. Unaware of what was going on behind him, Dawson finished his game, and when he turned around, he saw Daniel hanging by a scarf from his bunkbed.
“I was in the car leaving work when I got the phone call,” says Beasley. “It was 5:05 p.m., and I will never forget that because it was the worst moment of my life.”
Neither Beasley nor Daniel’s father David Sheppard had ever heard of the choking game before the tragedy, but both have since made it their mission to spread the word in hopes of saving even one life. Sheppard speaks to whoever will listen, and Beasley writes letters to national news programs and celebrities trying to get anyone with a little “pull” to get behind the cause.
For now though, amid the pain, Beasley and Sheppard share the same advice for other parents in the hope that more children don’t suffer Daniel’s fate: ‘Find out if they know about it … I was clueless until it happened,” says Sheppard. “Be very open and very honest. Please don’t think your children do not know or do not need to know,” says Beasley. “I would have never wanted my children to find out the way they did – one dead and the other two seeing their brother that way.”