Dying for a Thrill
Innocent pastimes of playing games such as hide and seek or ghost in the graveyard are quickly being replaced by dangerous practices that have claimed the lives of several children nationwide. Giving into peer pressure and searching for the "ultimate high," children as young as 9 and 10 years old have dabbled with a deadly game of making themselves pass out. Whether referring to this game as the fainting game, the passing out game or the choking game, the desired effects are still the same.
Passed down secretly for generations, children in the United States are copycatting some life-threatening activities they've seen glamorized in movies such as Flatliners and publicized in tragic news stories. Gambling with their lives, and often sadly losing, children allow their friends to choke them or willingly hang themselves in an attempt to join a perceived elite group of kids who've achieved a perceived supreme and elite state of euphoria.
Cutting off one's air supply and causing the resulting lack of oxygen to the brain, 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 Diana Derby, a child advocate specialist in McHenry, Ill. 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" this 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 for boys than for girls. Although statistics indicate that more boys lose their lives to this game, ironically, more girls than boys actually attempt to "play." "Unfortunately, boys are bred to be tough and cool," says Derby. "Even if they're scared or wanting to back out of participating, they don't because of peer pressure. 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
Children such as 11-year-old Dylan Blake of St. Augustine, Fla., and 14-year-old Chelsea Dunn of Nampa, Idaho, are talented, love to read, play with their friends and spend time with their family. These children don't do drugs or skip school. They have loving, involved parents who praise their accomplishments and support them when they are struggling. These two young victims and several others lost their lives to the choking game in 2005.
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," says Tania Soja, case manager at a residential treatment facility for children and teenagers in Reading, Pa.
The elusive nature of the game lures kids to Web sites that tout 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."
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 lying 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," says Soja.
Too many parents aren't aware that this could touch their children. "I had never heard of this," says an honest and heartbroken Loretta Burns of Annandale, Minn. "I wish I had." 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," she says.
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 of Chicago Heights, Ill., 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," she says. "Some fear that talking about this plants the seed to experiment, and others don't want to envision their child ever attempting such acts."
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," Burns says. "Although it might be uncomfortable to talk about, everyone needs to understand the dangers."
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 says. 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," says 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," says Darby. "Achieving it is just as important as taking another drink or finding more drugs."
"One conversation isn't enough," says Burns. "Parents need to continually remind their children of the dangers associated with taking some 'typical' childhood risks."