How to Help Teens Process Disturbing Events Like the Capitol Riots

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In a time that is already filled with uncertainty, a violent national event like the Capitol riots can shake young people’s sense of safety and stability. Teens may be left sitting with a mix of painful emotions—fear, confusion, anger, grief, hopelessness. Regardless of the political beliefs a teen or their family hold, an event that results in chaos, deaths, and the feeling that things are out of control can have both short- and long-term repercussions on teen mental health.

Immediately following a disturbing event like the Capitol riots, teens are likely to experience an increase in anxiety levels—which are already at all-time highs for adolescents right now. Teens who are stressed and lonely after months of social isolation and political unrest may feel as if the world is falling down around them.

If teens don’t have a chance to process these feelings, they are at risk of developing secondary PTSD. Also known as vicarious trauma, secondary PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) refers to the traumatic stress that can result from indirect exposure to violent and disturbing national events via TV or social media.

Signs of Traumatic Stress in Teens

In the days and weeks after a disturbing national event, teens may show some of these signs of distress and anxiety:

  • Sleep problems, such as nightmares or insomnia
  • Repetitively thinking and talking about the event
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Experiencing intense emotions and mood swings
  • Physical issues, such as stomachaches or headaches
  • Losing interest in their usual activities
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Expressing pessimism and cynicism about the world
  • Suicidal thoughts.

While some of these behaviors may fade over time, they may also get worse. Therefore, it’s essential for parents of teens to address these symptoms directly rather than simply waiting for them to go away.

5 Steps for Helping Teens Process Disturbing Events

When parents are having trouble processing their own emotions around a disturbing national event, they may feel as if they’re not equipped to help their children deal with it. But adults don’t have to have all the answers in order to support teens in working through difficult and confusing feelings. Here are five steps for helping teens process disturbing national events like the Capitol riots.

1. Validate what they’re feeling.

Let teens know that whatever they’re feeling is okay. It’s understandable to have a lot of emotions during times of national upheaval. In fact, it’s fine for parents to be honest and let teens know that they, too, are feeling overwhelmed and emotional. However, parents should never turn to their teens for help in dealing with their own distress.

As a parent, the best way for you to help your teen feel safe is to assure them that no matter what you’re both going through, you will be there to listen to them, love them, and make sure they have any additional support they need.

2. Take the opportunity to have a discussion about values.

Times of great upheaval and stress are confusing and painful. But they can also help us get clearer about what matters most in our lives. That’s true for teens as well.

Parents can take this opportunity to engage teens in a conversation about the qualities and ways of being that they believe are most admirable and worthwhile. Rather than sharing your own values or telling them what you think is right, ask them questions that encourage them to voice what they feel strongly about and want to uphold in their own lives.

3. Limit teens’ time online.

It’s not realistic to expect teens to unplug entirely from their devices, particularly when so much of their academic and social lives are online right now. However, parents can help teens create limits around their exposure to media, particularly media that is likely to increase their levels of anxiety and distress. Beyond setting rules, encourage teens to consider how their mood and state of mind are affected by the media they consume. How do they feel after time online vs. time outside, for example? Can they recognize the mental health benefits of unplugging?

Spending less time on devices and more time engaged in real-life relationships and activities will go a long way to support teen mental health not only after disturbing national events, but also throughout the teenage years. Don Grant, PhD, Newport’s Director of Outpatient Services, calls this “healthy device management,” which focuses on reintroducing teens to the value and importance of time away from technology.

4. Support them to restore a sense of inner calm.

High levels of stress, constant media exposure, and the general national turmoil created by disturbing events like the Capitol riots activate the sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight-or-flight response. As a result, teens may go into a state of physical, mental, and emotional stress. They will likely need encouragement and help to engage in activities that help to shift their nervous system into the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode, also called the relaxation response.

Research shows that mindfulness exercises are one of the most effective approaches for activating this mode. The slow, mindful mindful movement and breathing done in yoga calms the nervous system, slowing down the heart and respiratory rate. As a result, the mind and emotions automatically become calmer. Therefore, teens don’t have “think” their way out of stress; their neurobiological system does the work for them. Doing yoga together can benefit both parents and kids, while strengthening family bonds.

5. Help teens channel their emotions into meaningful action.

Teens feel things passionately, and parents can support them in translating that passion into action, self-expression, and connection. They could volunteer or help raise funds for a cause they care about, or write songs, journal, or make visual art about what they’re feeling. They might want to reach out to friends who share their values, or join community organizations in which they can meet like-minded peers.

When teens take meaningful action in the wake of a disturbing national event, they have a better chance of experiencing post-traumatic growth. Hence, they can move forward feeling more resilient and empowered, with a stronger sense of self and a determination to help create positive change.

 

Sources:

PLoS One. 2020; 15(4): e0231299.

Front Psychol. 2019; 10: 687.