Helping Teens Regain Emotional Safety After School Shooting Tragedy

The school shooting in Florida yesterday is a terrible tragedy, and unfortunately, it is one that hits close to home for all teenagers. When tragic events occur, many parents feel uncertain about how best to talk to their children. Here are some ideas from experts:

Stay Calm. Your child will mirror your reaction. If you sound anxious, your teen will pick up on it and feel scared, too. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the situation, it’s important that you seek help from a professional or other adults, away from any children. Kids are amazingly adept at “overhearing” information you share on the phone or hear on the radio, even when they appear to be involved in something else. Be sure to take care of yourself by having your own support system. Teens will feel safest if they believe that the adults in their life are calm and in charge.

Limit Media. Unless you are in the midst of an emergency where you truly need minute-by-minute updates for your safety, turn off the radio, television, and Internet so that no one in the family, especially children, is bombarded with horrible images and information. While it can feel compelling, it only heightens anxiety without providing constructive help.

Provide Explanations. Before you launch into a discussion about school shootings, ask your teens what questions they have. Their concerns may be something you didn’t even consider, and you may share too much or too little, so let them lead the discussion. When they ask you questions, give teens honest answers and information. They 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. In your discussions, try to focus on reassurance and hope rather than going over the gory details again and again. Highlight some of the positives of the story – teachers and peers who helped each other out during the event. If you can, describe some of the things that are being done to ensure safety in your community, at your school, and in your family.

Validate Feelings. 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 normal. Give reassuring answers to worried questions, and accept their feelings, letting them know that it is okay to feel sad or angry. Be careful to not burden your teen with your feelings.

Offer Control. Tragedies often leave people feeling helpless and out of control. To help combat these negative feelings, provide teens with occasions to regain their sense of power by giving them decision-making opportunities throughout their daily routine. Additionally, you might suggest your teen do something to help victims of the tragedy, such as raising funds through a bake sale.

Monitor Behavioral Changes. Teens may feel sad, hopeless, irritable, or anxious after a tragedy. Try to assist your teen in controlling their behavior gently and without embarrassment, but seek professional help if your teen seems unable to move forward.

Teach Healthy Stress Management. Tragedies are stressful, and teens need healthy coping mechanisms. Tell your teens it is perfectly normal to feel stressed after this type of tragedy, and the best way to deal with those anxious thoughts is through relaxation, such as deep breathing, identifying things to be grateful for in your own life (some people write 3 things down each day in a gratitude journal), exercising, and relaxation exercises such as meditation or yoga.

Final Thoughts…

Parents always want to make their children feel safe, but be careful not to make promises you can’t keep. Focus on what you can control: demonstrating love to your teen, maintaining open communication, teaching stress management, and identifying what we can do to stay safe.

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