Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Tragic EventsParents
This piece is co-authored by Eden Pontz, Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content at the CPTC, and was originally published on Psychology Today.
Talking About Tragic Events
As parents in an uncertain and often dangerous world, we wish we could bubble wrap our children. Keep them safe, and even protect them from being exposed to the realities of senseless tragedy. But we can’t. The truth is we will be faced with inexplicable events like mass shootings, terrorism or unexpected attacks. When they happen, so often our reactions run a similar path. As adults, we are shocked. We are saddened. We may wonder whether it could happen again, and if it does, whether we will be there. For some of us, we may have experienced so many of these events that we’ve become numb.
Our children look to us to be sure everything is okay. For teens, processing these events can be challenging. So can the conversations that we must have with them. We must take some different approaches in the way we talk with our children. Our teens must not see themselves as powerless. We must help prepare them to be the generation that solves problems. Not the generation that just lives with them. They must never believe that we have no ability to prevent these disasters.
First: Check Your Own Emotions
Before beginning any sort of conversation with your adolescent, take a moment and check yourself. How is this event affecting you? Processing your own emotions and getting them in check is an important step to take before approaching the topic with your teen. If you are angry about the event, give yourself some time to cool down. If you are terrified, allow yourself time to process. If you’re feeling anxious, limit yourself to exposure of news stories or conversations that could increase your anxiety. Just because we are adults does not mean we are not vulnerable. But it’s important to realize how your emotional reaction may influence that of your child or teenager. On the other hand, the fact that you feel unsettled should be shared. We must never let young people believe we accept these events as “expected” or that we are left without a reaction.
Teens may be experiencing similar emotions. It’s important to let them express their feelings. We must never minimize their anger, frustration or shock. The fact that your child may be highly emotional is exactly where they should be. It’s the passion and emotion within our youth that provides hope for future change.
Know Your Child: Be Honest and Have Age-Appropriate Talks
You wouldn’t speak with an 8-year-old the same way you’d speak with a 15-year-old. Generally, children under the age of seven are unable to fully understand and process complex traumatic events. It’s also important to know how your child (regardless of age) emotionally reacts to tragedy or loss. Make sure to engage in conversations that are at a level your child can understand and comfortably handle.
Stick to the facts and work to correct any misinformation they may have heard. Avoid going into gruesome details. Take into consideration your proximity and connection to the event. Help to clear up any misunderstandings or questions. Help reassure them through calm, honest dialogue. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to say you don’t know. It’s absolutely acceptable to say you don’t understand why this awful event took place. For all children, asking them about what they may have heard, know or read can help guide your conversation.
Support Your Teens’ Resilience
In times of crisis, listening is a key way for you to support your teens and show your love and acceptance towards them. By listening to them, you’ll be able to further determine how they are handling the situation, interpreting the events and what they may need from you or other adults in their lives.
Some teens may find it easier to express themselves by talking about what others around them are thinking. Instead of discouraging this line of discussion by asking them if that’s how they’re feeling too, let them continue in that vein and acknowledge the feelings of others are justified.
Understand How Teens Think to Improve Communication
Successful conversations with teens happen when parents recognize how their children think. Consider developmental milestones when trying to communicate with adolescents.
Meet Them Where They’re At
Consider your tween or teen’s mood before starting a discussion. It’s important your concerns are expressed as part of a respectful conversation.
Make it a Two-Way Conversation
Lecturing can be frustrating and hard to follow for many young people. Parents should offer information in ways that children can understand. Have back and forth discussions that allow teens to take ownership of solutions.
Know Their Level of Development
Understand what phase of development your child is in and their ability to understand complex information. Young children see things exactly as they are -- concretely. Adults see possibilities and imagine future consequences -- abstractly. Adolescents think somewhere in the middle.
Consider Their Stress Level
Young people under stress may lose the ability to plan ahead and consider the consequences of their actions. Adults also have trouble thinking clearly when stressed. Approach difficult conversations when you both can remain calm and level-headed.
Monitor Teens’ Media
Stories about mass attacks are generally not appropriate for young children to watch. But for tweens and teens, it’s unrealistic to expect they won’t have any exposure to coverage of the story. From friends on social media to smartphones to television, they will be aware that something happened. They may or may not have their facts correct. So, discuss with them what they are hearing and seeing.
A good way to begin the conversation is to ask some simple questions. “What are you hearing about __________? What have your friends been saying about this at school today? What types of things are they posting on social media?” Let the conversation flow naturally from there. In the age of 24-7 media chatter, you may want to try watching the news together and engage in conversation as you learn more. Let your teens ask questions. Ask questions yourself. But, also keep track of how much exposure your teens are getting post-event and consider limiting it. Discourage them from doing internet searches. Turn off the television and ask them to put down the smartphone if they are focused on the horrific news. Remember, we want them to learn to remain informed, but then to turn to others for support rather than subjecting themselves to the trauma of repetitive exposure to graphic images.
Be a Protective Force: Reinforce Safety & Your Love
As we work to make sense of or explain traumatic events, it’s important to reinforce that you and your tween/teen are safe. If possible, point out the distance between you and the event. Discuss the fact that law enforcement is on the scene working to make sure everyone is safe. If age-appropriate and an attacker has been subdued, arrested or even killed, let your child know. Keep explanations of what’s being done by government workers, aid agencies or others to help with the situation brief. Try not to overwhelm with too much information. This may also provide a chance to discuss your own family safety plans in various situations. Let your teens know what you’re doing to keep them safe. Take the time to tell them how much you love them. Your love, in both good and deeply challenging times, remains a critically protective force in their lives.
Show Them the Goodness in Others
As much as traumatic events showcase the worst in certain individuals, they also bring out the best in many others. Highlight for them stories of love, bravery, and selflessness in the midst of chaos. In the aftermath of tragedy, we so often witness people risking their own lives to protect and shield others. We watch as survivors help transport wounded people to hospitals. We see strangers line up to donate blood. The everyday people who emerge as heroes in the critical moments following. Encourage your teens to see all the goodness emerging.
We are raising our children to become the adults who will contribute to building a better world. We wish that there were no tragedies for them to witness. But when they do, we must have two goals. First, to protect them emotionally and reinforce their safety in the moment. Second, to assure they do not become used to the realities we witness, lest they ever accept them as routine or become numb to the pain. Underscoring the best of humanity in the worst of times is a strategy that both helps us get through the pain of today and assures that young people will continue the work of seeking solutions for a better tomorrow.
Never Force a Discussion
Some adolescents may appear disinterested in the event. Some may act even-keeled as if it hasn’t affected them. If this is how your teen reacts, don’t force the issue. Just let him/her know you are there to talk. You are also happy to listen. Some teens may feel the need for a sense of normalcy and may not outwardly express their true emotions. In the meantime, you can model that for you, talking to others helps with your sense of comfort and security.
Get Professional Help When Needed
Remember, you are not alone. If your adolescent is struggling and you want professional help for them don’t hesitate to reach out to a medical professional, school counselor, clergy, or responsible community leader for advice.
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As much as we wish we could always protect our children from tragic events, we can’t. But how we respond, actions we model and the way we give support helps minimize our teens’ trauma. It also teaches them to become more resilient to future events.