How Parents Can Help Teens Cope with the Recent School Shooting

sadgirlTragic events – whether it’s an earthquake, tornado, school shooting, or some other disaster – are not easy to comprehend or accept, even for the most mature.

Although discussing tragedies with teens is a challenge, it is also very important. Even if your teen hasn’t talked to you about the disaster, there is little doubt that they have heard about it from the Internet, friends, school or other venues. They may have received information that was incorrect or frightening. Parents and teachers should take the opportunity to have a discussion with teens about tragedies. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry on how to do that:

  • Create an open and supportive environment where teens know they can ask questions. Be available, positive, and open to all subjects. In listening to children, adults can ease children’s worries by correcting any misunderstandings and confusions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless, and until, they’re ready.
  • Give children honest answers and information. It is important for teens to discuss the event freely and express their concerns and views. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate. But, stay honest; children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up,” which may affect their ability to trust you in the future. If you do not know the answers, tell them so and find out for them.
  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a teen to ask for reassurance.
  • If you teen is afraid, ask them why and talk about it. Respect their fears – do not ignore them or put them down as childish or silly. However, don’t allow them to avoid things they are afraid of. Remind them of times in the past when they were afraid of something, and it turned out okay. It may help alleviate fear if they can talk through a disaster plan or “what-to-do” scenario so your teen feels some level of control over the situation.
  • Be reassuring, but honest. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members. Reassure your teen that those who they care about are safe. Teens really want to know “why” something has happened. Unfortunately, this is one instance where a parent simply doesn’t have all the answers, and you should admit it.
  • Let teens know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the tragedy. Identify ways for your family to help. When they reach out to help others in a time of need, teens gain self-esteem and a sense of how to respond constructively. If available, your children might participate in school or community projects designed to help raise money, supplies and materials for those affected by the tragedy.
  • Tweens and teens learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to world events so monitor your own reactions and conversations. Let your child know how you feel about the recent events, which can help children talk about their own feelings as well. It is okay if your child does not want to talk about their thoughts or fears, but encourage them to express themselves in another way, such as writing or drawing.
  • Limit your teen’s exposure to television coverage of the event, and do not let them watch it alone. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing. While your teen may hear of the events quickly over social media, you can still limit how much they watch.

When deciding how to help a teen cope with a tragedy, consider each situation individually. If a teen lost a parent or other family member, or if they are friends with someone that lost someone in the tragedy, then they will likely need professional help.

If your teen had no direct connection to the event, but seems to be preoccupied with questions or concerns about tragedies, parents should consider having them evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Signs that a teen may need additional help include: ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, and recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school.

The majority of teens best cope with tragedies when parents, teachers and caring adults listen and respond to them in an honest, consistent and supportive manner. Fortunately, most children are quite resilient and by creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties.

Finally, we encourage you to read our previous blog: How Adults Can Encourage Teens to Prevent School Violence.

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