How to Talk to Teens About Tragedy
After tragic violent incidents like the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Parkland, it’s important to talk. Kids need to process what is happening. Therefore, the first step is opening the space for communication with teens about what happened. Discussing the event with a trusted adult—parent, grandparent, therapist, or guidance counselor—can help children and teenagers process their feelings.
When something like this happens, people of all ages are affected on an emotional level. Our sense of safety and security is shaken. For children and teens, that distress can progress into anxiety and fear. It helps a lot to talk about it. Furthermore, by opening lines of communication, we deepen interpersonal connection and trust.
Here are guidelines for communicating with teens about tragic events.
How to Talk to Kids About Tragic Events and Teen Trauma
Begin by finding out what they already know. Most teens these days get their news through social media, which can be unreliable. Ask them what they have heard about the event. Make sure you’re informed beforehand. Therefore, you can fill in missing facts or dispel any myths about the event that they might have been exposed to.
Ask them if they have questions. Rather than guiding the conversation, let the teen take the lead. You might be surprised by their questions. The issues that come up for teenagers around such events aren’t always the same ones adults that adults grapple with.
Honesty with Kids is Key
Be honest. Teens are savvy and they already know a lot about what the world is like. Don’t mince words or try to sugarcoat the event. It’s important for teens to trust the adults around them. Furthermore, when this trust is clear, kids know that they can go to them for honest answers.
Reassure them that their reaction—whatever it may be—is normal. Teenagers often worry that they are alone in feeling the way they do. Let them know that their sadness, fear, anxiety, confusion, anger—or whatever they are experiencing—is normal. In addition, it is all a healthy reaction to what happened. Even if your teen appears indifferent to the event, it’s important to talk about it. They may be feeling strong emotions under the stoic front.
Remind them that such events are rare. While gun violence is an ongoing problem in the US, mass shootings on the scale of what happened in Las Vegas are rare. The odds are being exposed to such an event are low.
Share your own reaction, without going overboard. It’s okay to let teens know that you, too, find this event troubling and sad. But adults shouldn’t use the time with their kids to process their own emotions. That may create more anxiety for the child or teen. Validation is okay; venting is not.
Creativity and Teen Emotions
Encourage them to express their emotions without words. Some teens might have strong emotions about the event but have trouble talking about it. However, there are other ways they can process their emotions. Hence, writing a song, painting, or journaling are all positive ways to channel and process what they are feeling.
Continue to check in. One conversation isn’t necessarily enough. Therefore, be sure to check in every few days to see how your teen is feeling, particularly if they are exhibiting signs of stress. Don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to, but make sure they know you are there for them when they do.
Help Kids See Good in the World
Help them remember the good in the world. After a tragedy, it’s easy to focus on the negative. Remind your teen that most people are good at heart and want to help others, not hurt them. Positivity can be a powerful tool for mental health. In addition, you might want to share personal stories or stories in the media that illustrate how people are helping each other. This promotes a sense of positive change in the world.
Monitor how they’re doing. Here are a few signs to watch for that may indicate that a child or teenager is having trouble processing a tragic event.
Signs of Trauma and/or PTSD
- Sleep issues: Insomnia, nightmares, or oversleeping in the morning may all indicate that a teen is experiencing high levels of anxiety.
- Physical problems: Children or teens may complain about stomachaches, headaches, or loss of appetite.
- Behavioral changes: Irritability and aggressive behavior can be signs of anxiety. Watch for signs of substance abuse. Teens may use alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate the emotions brought up by the event. Learn about signs of teen substance abuse.
- Becoming clingy: Teens who had previously been drawing away from their parents as they move toward independence may become clingy and attached after such an event. That’s normal. Be present and affectionate.
Talk to Kids About Tragedy Right Away
If you see any of these signs, talk with your teen about how they’re feeling. And don’t hesitate to reach out for professional guidance. Short-time counseling or a support group may be helpful for teens who are having difficulty processing their emotions.
In conclusion, it’s important for both teens and parents to remember that it’s normal to feel distress and grief in the face of tragedy and violence. We all share these emotions to some degree. The key is finding healthy ways to move forward.
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