As a parent, some of our greatest fears, and inevitably greatest pains, are to watch our children struggle with the weight of this fallen world we live in. I know we would all like to exist in a place that pain (sometimes so intense that we falsely believe the only way to escape it is death) was not a reality for our precious children or ourselves. This side of heaven, the only way to experience true freedom from pain, darkness, and death, is to put our faith and trust in The One Who conquered all pain, darkness, and death. As a fellow believer, I know this is your heart’s desire for your children.
I wish it was not the case, but the harsh reality is that suicide is an ever-present phenomenon that our children may have to navigate. It is ALL too relevant for every single one of us.
In the book The Cure and Parents, the authors say “we get to give our kids the best of us– earning permission to influence them, mature them, know them, give guidance to them, protect them, love them, free them, and show them a magnificent God and an authentic life that will hold up for their entire lifetime.” They continued to state, “they get to watch us trusting God. They watch us mature and heal and become freer…they get to enjoy, instead of maneuvering around, the very ones who have loved them most.”
So as parents walking in faith, how do we deal with this reality? How can our children see us trusting God with this harrowing topic? I would like to give you some practical thoughts and ideas to help support you as a parent not only in having conversations about suicide, but in how to help create an environment for these tough topics to be discussed.
LISTEN: Everyone wants to be heard. When our children are little we oftentimes say “use your words.” As they get older we can find ourselves saying “I don’t want to hear it” or “It doesn’t matter that…” and don’t realize we are stunting open communication. Then in turn we expect them to be open and honest when we want specific answers or want to have a tough conversation. I encourage you to hear your child out. Then they are more likely to hear you out.
VALIDATE: We do not have to understand, agree with, or even like how our child is thinking or feeling. But giving them the gift of validation is life giving and incredibly freeing. Simple ways of doing this are responding with “Gosh I’m so sorry you feel that way,” or “man it’s tough to be dealing with all of that.” How they feel in that moment is in direct correlation with what they are believing to be true, but we cannot have access to help influence and guide their beliefs if we first don’t recognize, validate, and show they can trust us with their thoughts and feelings. Take what they have to say seriously. What is a big deal to them may not seem like a big deal to us.
RESPOND: How we respond to our child’s words, actions, or lack of action (from day one) greatly shapes our child’s ability to trust us with their thoughts and feelings. I am not suggesting our children can never see us upset or frustrated, but in those moments modeling for them how to trust God is essential in gaining their trust. Or when we make a poor choice in not trusting God and whom we are in Christ, acknowledging that and asking our children for forgiveness. We, our homes, are called to be their safe space, their place of refuge from the world and the lies it throws at them. Even if we are freaking out on the inside, I encourage you to respond calmly in love. So often children do not open up to their parents because they are fearful of their reaction. Fear and shame come hand in hand and are a powerful tool of the enemy. Our reactions to small things project to them how we will respond to big, hard things.
FIGHT FOR THEM, NOT WITH THEM: I believe our children need to know and see us fighting for them instead of with them. This entails us saying things like “you may not understand my decision on (fill in the blank), but it is being made because I am listening to the Holy Spirit and fighting for you in this area.” Our children want, despite what it seems sometimes, to know we have their backs and are engaged in the hard fight with them. As they get older this definitely begins to be more behind the scenes. I am not suggesting you carrying all the burden/fight, but having your “fight for them” be done in guidance, support, and consistently pointing them to their Creator.
HAVE THE HARD CONVERSATIONS: No family is immune to hard things. It is the nature of this world. Even if your children are happy and excelling, intentionally having these hard conversations speaks volumes to their hearts. They will at some point, either personally or watching a friend struggle, have to trust Jesus with thoughts of death. Below are some tips on having conversations on suicide, which can also be applied to many hard topics:
Timing: Pick a time that you are most likely to have you child’s attention and a captive audience. Even if teens seem to portray otherwise, they want our time. If you are having a hard time with communication from your child, engage in an activity they enjoy in order to create a space to hang out and speak truth.
Make a game plan: Think and pray about what you specifically want to communicate to your child knowing their heart and needs. It is okay (actually it’s a gift to our child) for us to admit to them that this is a hard topic. It acknowledges and validates to them that you recognize the discomfort and potential difficulty in having these types of conversations which helps to allow them to openly express their discomfort.
Ask hard questions: Be direct with your children. Ask them what they think about suicide, if they have ever had thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or wanting to die. Ask them if this is something that they talk about with their friends. Self-harm is not synonymous with suicide or suicidal thoughts, however self-harm is also to be taken very seriously. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are a real thing in this fallen world and are nothing to be ashamed of as a child or parent. If your child responds saying they have had thoughts of self-harm, suicide, depression, or anxiety, then explore this further with them and let them know because you love them you want to think and pray on how to proceed as a family. If you feel like your child is in immediate danger, always act accordingly and seek immediate help.
*A helpful tool to access possible warning signs is at the bottom.
Be Honest: Let them into your struggles. At an age appropriate level, it is always encouraged to share our past and even present struggles with our children. It helps them know they are not alone. It is also an amazing way to allow our children to watch us trust God. The more they see us trusting Him, the more they are able to trust us AND choose to trust Him also.
Make a plan together: Because these, and other topics, are things we want to address throughout the years, make a plan with your child on how that will look. You can say things like “because I know life can throw us hard things, I would love to revisit this together in the future. Let’s plan to talk again in a couple of weeks/months, and know you can always come to me before then.” When there is a suicide (or any hard topic) with a social media presence or a presence in your direct life, allow this to be an opportunity to catapult a conversation with your child. Ask their thoughts on the recent event. If your child has revealed something of concern SEEK HELP. Some children ask to speak to a counselor; some fear it like the plague. But please do not sit idle on concerns. Trust Christ in you to take action regardless of your child’s receptiveness to it.
You cannot give someone the idea of suicide by talking about the subject. Contrary to that belief, talking about suicide brings the topic to light, allowing truth to be revealed in this arena.
Ephesians 5:13 says “but all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.”
John 1:5 states “the Light (Christ, Truth) shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
It is human nature to want to avoid and escape pain. We know that the only true freedom when there is pain is through a dependent life In Christ. If you need any help or would like to talk through something specific, please feel the freedom to speak with me or someone on staff. It is a humbling privilege to walk alongside people in their scariest, darkest, and most challenging moments. I pray for you and your conversations with your children. You are fully equipped and have the true resource, Jesus, living in and through you.
*Helpful Tool to Access Possible Warning Signs:
FEELINGS that, again, seem different from the past, like hopelessness; fear of losing control; helplessness; worthlessness; feeling anxious, worried or angry often
ACTIONS that are different from the way your child acted in the past, especially things like talking about death or suicide, taking dangerous risks, withdrawing from activities or sports or using alcohol or drugs
CHANGES in personality, behavior, sleeping patterns, eating habits; loss of interest in friends or activities or sudden improvement after a period of being down or withdrawn
THREATS that convey a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or preoccupation with death (“Life doesn’t seem worth it sometimes”; “I wish I were dead”; “Heaven’s got to be better than this”); plans like giving away favorite things, studying ways to die, obtaining a weapon or stash of pills; suicide attempts like overdosing or cutting.
SITUATIONS that can serve as “trigger points” for suicidal behaviors. These include things like loss or death; humiliations, rejections, or failures, getting in trouble at home, in school or with the law; a break-up; or impending changes for which your child feels scared or unprepared.
NOTE: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT TAKE THE PLACE OF CONSULTING WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PRACTITIONER. IF YOU HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT YOUR MENTAL HEALTH OR THE MENTAL HEALTH OF YOUR CHILD OR LOVED ONE, SEEK HELP IMMEDIATELY.