How to Talk to Children about Suffering

Childhood can be difficult, no matter how driven parents are to eliminate suffering and provide all the perks "we couldn't afford when I was a kid." You know, when school was uphill both ways and all that.

Children suffer. We all suffer. It's true.

Every generation has sworn not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and yet we suffer at least as much as our ancestors--if in different ways. Perhaps more of us moderns are higher up in Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" than ever before, but as far as I know, Maslow never wrote a "hierarchy of perfection." (HOORAY! WE DID IT! THE HUMAN RACE IS COMPLETELY AND PERMANENTLY FULFILLED!)

Despite the steady drumbeat of human progress, we will always have needs. We are needy, achy. We suffer. It's part of the human experience. Suffering isn't the entire meaning of human existence, of course, but it's got to be one of the top two most common human experiences.

Pope Francis asks us to care about suffering. This month, his universal prayer intention is Care for the Suffering:
"We pray that, rejecting the culture of indifference, we may care
for our neighbors who suffer, especially the sick and the poor."

Parents naturally and rightly shield children from unnecessary suffering. Nonetheless, children know what it is to feel bad. We can help children grow in the light of Christ if we invite them to pray for people who suffer.

Jesus himself shows us what to do with suffering: offer it as a prayer for the good of others. Jesus never sinned, never caused suffering to come his way.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15)
In a similar way, many of us suffer through no fault of our own. We're usually not surprised when we suffer because of our own mistakes (I just had to run into the store for one second! I thought it would be fine to slip into the handicapped parking space. This $250 ticket is going to hurt).

Suffering makes a lot less sense when we have not caused it. In fact, suffering often makes no sense at all: childhood cancer, domestic and sexual abuse, earthquakes in impoverished countries, disease, drought. . . .

Jesus models for us how to shoulder our crosses, even the ones that come to us unfairly. By joining our suffering to his, we actually contribute to the salvation of the world.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)
When we talk to children about suffering, it's unhelpful to discuss WHY bad things happen. Suffering--a result of the Fall--makes no sense in and of itself. What children need to hear is that our suffering can be a powerful source of good for others. Jesus shows us how.

Children can learn to be sensitive to suffering. When adults empathize with them (I'm so sorry you tripped and scraped your knee. Oooh, I know that must hurt!), they learn to share others' sadness. And when empathetic children grow up, they become courageous citizens who defend the weak and the suffering.

Let's join Pope Francis in praying for our neighbors who suffer, especially the sick and the poor. Let's pray together with our children, asking the Lord to give us sensitive, loving hearts:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  (Ezekiel 36:26)
Our monthly reflection and activity for children appears below. Please use it if you find it helpful this month as we join together in prayer.

St. Therese, pray for us!