Children's Pastor's Guide To Tough Topics: Suicide

Depression. Anxiety. Suicide. These are all words you never think you’ll have to discuss with your kids. Sadly; however, with rapidly changing world circumstances and the reality of pain in the world, it’s a conversation that’s now critical. According to a study done by the JAMA Network, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death among children aged 5 to 11 years, with rates increasing during the past decade (Donna A. Ruch, PhD. 2021, July 27). Perhaps not surprisingly, these statistics are even more alarming among teens. This is not meant to invoke fear in you, but will hopefully help shine a light on a real challenge for the kids around us. Then we as parents, aunts, uncles, leaders, teachers, and pastors can have preventative and healing conversations we can have with our kids before these things become a greater issue or concern in our homes and churches. 

 

Why is it important to talk to kids about suicide?

Since suicide is a top leading cause of death among our kids, it should be a high priority for us as well. Realistically, if our kids aren’t directly affected by it, they likely have a friend or know someone who is struggling. After over 15 years in various ministry contexts, one thing I have learned about suicide is that those who are left behind always wish for more time. There are never words good enough for someone who has experienced the sting of suicide. Losing someone you love deeply is devastating at best. So, there are two very important reasons that we should be having these conversations with our kids even if things are seemingly fine:

1. We need to talk about it proactively.

As we’ve already said, your kids may not struggle in this area, but they likely know someone who is or will. It’s important for us to educate them on how to navigate pains and anxieties to equip them well personally.

2. We need to educate our kids about experiencing others who may be in pain.Our world is not lacking in pain. There are people hurting all around us. It’s essential that we teach our kids to be kind and empathetic people to those hurting around them. 

How do I talk about suicide with kids?

1. Listen
One of the many reasons that kids won’t talk openly is that we don’t listen well. So, it’s important that we come with open minds, listen well, and be fully present in the conversation. Give your kids space to tell you what they may already know about suicide and how it makes them feel. Also, allow them to ask questions without judgment. They may have silly questions or even painfully deep questions. Either way, give them the space to be fully present in the conversation. The most important part of you listening well will be that you are fully present. Here are a few quick tips on how to be fully present in the conversation:
        • Leave your phone somewhere else.
        • Remove other distractions.
        • Make eye contact.
        • Don’t listen to respond, but just listen.
    2. Don’t be afraid to share age-appropriate details

    Depending on the age of the child, there are details that may or may not be necessary for the conversation. If talking to a very young kid, keep it simple unless they add more detail. As they get older, be honest and truthful. Kids can generally tell when we aren’t being fully truthful, which will later result in a lack of trust. As your kids enter their teen years, understand that they may know more about situations than you even know about. Due to social media and information being readily available online, they may already have a great deal of detail on the subject. 

    3. Create a safe space

    In every potentially difficult conversation, you must have with your kids, it’s essential for you to create a safe space for the conversation. What does that mean? It means that they can share their thoughts, feelings, and questions openly without judgment. In addition, they need to feel seen, known and loved. So, even when your kids present ideas that may be different from your perspective, be slower to correct and quicker to understand. If they talk about hard or heavy feelings that are hard to hear, take a deep breath before saying anything. Remember, if their feelings are overwhelming to you, they must be that much more overwhelming for them. The goal of a safe space is that they want to come back to discuss with you the hard subjects. If they aren’t struggling today, but feel safe in the conversation, then they will be that much more likely to talk to you when they are having a hard time.

    4. Don’t make it about you

    Remember, for this to be a safe space, we need to see and acknowledge their feelings. This means that your feelings cannot take first place in the discussion. Truthfully, when our kids are struggling or want to have hard conversations, it’s scary. It can be easy to get defensive or protective and try to fix everything for them. Kids don’t need quick fixes or solutions, but they need a stable, continuous way to work through the hardships of their own lives. Also, as adults, we often respond to these hard conversations with fear. Unfortunately, kids often misinterpret fear as anger. So, keep that in mind as you navigate the conversation. Uncomfortable conversations are just that, uncomfortable. We must be willing to put ourselves aside and walk through the discomfort though to help our kids learn, grow, and develop.

    5. Teach them how to show compassion to others
    Compassion is a critically important trait in our suffering world. While you may not be struggling today, you definitely know someone who is hurting in a significant way. So, as we have conversations with our kids about deep pains and the suffering others may be enduring, we must teach them to be compassionate and loving. They are not responsible for fixing the problems that others have or making their pain better, but they are responsible for treating others with kindness. 

     

    Suicide is a scary subject to address with kids. There are plenty of fears that would keep us from talking to them about it, but we cannot allow those fears to hold us back. It’s incredibly important that we have these conversations with kids before there are bigger challenges. Also, as a parent or influential adult in these kids’ lives, please realize how precious and special these moments actually are. You’re providing them with security and a place for trust. That’s more valuable than you realize. 

    If your child is having suicidal thoughts, take that seriously. Do not leave them alone until they can get help. Take him or her to your local emergency room immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Let them know that you will get through this WITH them and they are not alone. 

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