This is the second in the series on children and suicide. The first post asked the question, “Do elementary age children seriously consider suicide?”
It is important to understand all you can about suicide in young children so you can better minister to the potentially vulnerable child in your church. This post gives you a deeper understanding of what is going on in the life of such a child– and also gives you ideas about what to say and what not to say.
When you suspect a child is suicidal in that particular moment in time, you may be the only one to step forward to help save this child. You may also be the only one that can minister to the parent(s) and make them aware of how much their child is hurting and needs help. You may literally be the only manifestation of Jesus they see.
When a child expresses the desire to die, he or she is expressing a call for help. You must take this seriously. Don’t make the mistake of thinking “He is just saying that for attention.” The child NEEDS attention. His very life may depend upon it!
If you are concerned that a child you know is seriously considering suicide, immediately scroll down to the paragraph entitled “Default to action.” You can read the rest of this post later.
When you are not sure: tips, ideas and conversations
There are times when a child will say things like “I wish I could die,” or “I’d rather be dead.” Is this real? If you believe there is any possibility that the child is serious, take the steps outlined at the bottom of this post. It’s best to default to action.
If you are not sure, or if you think the child is not seriously considering taking her life, I’ve compiled some tips for how to respond and suggestions for talking with the child.
You’ll see ideas for a variety of scenarios:
- How to interact with the child to (potentially) get a sense of how serious he or she is.
- Ideas that will help you calm a child that is not actually considering taking her life
- How to limit outside influences that can lead a child to thoughts of suicide
You’ll see ideas for interacting with the child that will potentially help you understand how seriously he or she is. We also share ideas that will help you calm a child that is not actually considering taking her life. Be sure to include the parent(s) or convey to the parent what you’ve learned as you interact with the child.
IMPORTANT: This information will not help you formally diagnose the child. Only a competent professional can do that. The information you may gather from the suggestions below might instruct you on how to proceed. But, bottom line, when in doubt, take immediate action (see “Default to action” below).
With that introduction, I think you will find these tips helpful:
- Really listen to the child. Ask, “How would you kill yourself?” If the child’s plans are vague, there is less chance of the child being an imminent threat to himself. If the child is specific with his plans, he has obviously thought about this and his chances of attempting suicide are much higher.
- Empathize with the child’s feelings. “You must really feel bad right now” is so much more helpful than “You shouldn’t say such things” or “You’ll go straight to hell if you do that (suicide).”
- If you believe that the child has given some thought to taking his life but is not actively considering it at the current time, take steps to help the child deal with the problems they are facing. Potential approaches include:
- Seeing a counselor/psychologist.
- Talking to a family member or friend.
- Writing or drawing pictures about their feelings in a journal (this is not a “solution” or “treatment,” but may be a way the child can communicate her feelings)
- Obviously, you need to be sure to include the parent(s) in any of these steps. You also need to convey to the parent anything you’ve learned as you interact with the child privately.
- It is important to discuss that suicide is not something God desires or approves of. Discuss why that is. God gives us life, and only he has a right to take it away. It is very hurtful for the remaining family and friends and we need to use feelings of wanting to die as a warning to ourselves to seek other ways to help ourselves.
As you talk to the child, use Psalm 139:14 (NIV), “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Explain that God made us and He knows everything about us. He knows when we are hurting and we can depend on Him to help us through the troubling times.
- Ask the child to find and talk about good things about his day. It is very easy for depressed children and adults to focus only on the bad things. We have to help the child (and sometimes the parents too) develop an “attitude of gratitude.”Find the talents the Lord has given this child. Explain how the Lord can enjoy the child and how happy the Lord is over him. Help the child imagine the Lord rejoicing and singing over him.
- Encourage parents of children this age to carefully monitor and not allow them to watch scary, dark movies or read books with death related themes. Ask what kinds of video games the child is playing? These movies/videos/books just add fuel to suicidal feelings. Encourage the watching and reading of uplifting stories.
- If the child is generally happy and just says s/he wants to die when hearing “NO!” from a parent, then the parent needs to stay calm and NOT overreact to these comments. Encourage the parents to just be matter of fact with “I know you are mad about _________. Let’s talk about it.” If the child is too upset to talk then, discuss it later when everybody has calmed down.
- Be aware that some children use language like “I want to die” as hyperbole. They see how upset parents get when the child says “I want to die” and they begin to say it to get their way. In such instances, it is important to say, “You are really angry right now.”
- Children who are depressed need plenty of physical activity. Get the child moving! Suggest to the parent or parents to make it a family affair. We know that kids who spend much of their free time playing video games or watching TV are much more likely to suffer from depression and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
- For a young child who truly wants to die and is depressed, tell the parents to remove all means to accomplish this.
- Razor blades
- Guns (Get all guns out of the house. Don’t count on guns being locked up as kids may figure out how to get to the guns when they know where to look.)
- Pills, etc.
Encourage the parent to consult the child’s primary care physician for a referral to a child psychiatrist /psychologist/therapist/hospital etc. to evaluate the level of suicidality. This needs to be a person highly skilled in working with this age children. There are a few hospitals that will take elementary age children and if a child is a danger to himself or others, then that may be the safest place for him.When in doubt, act immediately!
Default to action
Quickly move into action if you encounter a child who is contemplating or making plans to commit suicide. Here are resources you can turn to:
National suicide hotline
The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK. While teens or adults might call, elementary age children would be unlikely to. However, if a parent has a child threatening suicide, a parent can call for advice.
Find local help
The Hotline may be able to point you to local professionals. Ideally, your church or organization already has a list of suggested counselors. If not, quickly research available options. Time is critical.
Don’t fly solo
If you work in children’s ministry or any other type of organization that serves children, immediately inform your leadership if you feel action needs to be taken. Ideally, your organization already has a policy in place on steps you should take. If not, suggest that one be developed.
Remember, you should not try to deal with a potentially suicidal child by yourself. That’s too much responsibility for someone who is not trained. Get help and get it fast!
The information presented in this article is for general information and should not be considered specific advice for any potential suicide situation. Always involve a church leader and/or mental health professional in the event you encounter a person or child who you believe might be considering suicide. Remember- you are not a mental health professional and should not attempt to diagnose or treat a person who is considering or discussing suicide. Get help quickly!
A personal thanks goes to Barbara Wright, LPC, CCPS for her contributions to this series on suicide in young children.
Barbara Wright’s contact information:
Licensed Professional Counselor Certified Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Norman Behavioral Health Group
3625 West Main Suite 100
Norman, OK 73072