Our hearts go out to those struggling with trauma or suffering through tragedy. Losing people we love is incredibly hard – and when we lose others to tragic circumstances it’s very difficult. We live in trying times. The pandemic made this abundantly clear to us all. But, there are things that happen that can traumatize and greatly impact developing teens. Over the past couple of weeks, our country has seen devastating tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, among many other areas touched by senseless violence.
Kids are struggling with so many mental health aspects beyond the usual concerns with the pandemic, remote learning, lack of socializing, among all the typical influences in the teen years. Here, in Southern California, we have seen two teenage suicides in the last month. This is so hard for all of us. Moments like these are important for connection with those we love and care for. We also know, from the research (INSERT LINK //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6128354/) , that the parent-child bond is very important to the emotional well-being of developing teens.
It can be difficult to know how to handle these delicate subjects when communicating but it is important that we do. On the one hand, we want to be direct and thoughtful with kids, and on the other, we don’t want to focus on something excessively. The most important things to remember as adults are to be open to communication, to be considerate of how others are feeling, to hold empathy, and to share and speak from the heart.
Read more tips on how to talk to teens when tragedy strikes.
- Check yourself. Before broaching any subject, make sure you have the details clear and know what you want to address with a child, and how you wish to do so. In addition to this, it’s important to be mindful of how you’re feeling, your behavior, and how you wish to hold space for all involved in the conversation to ensure everyone feels comfortable and safe.
- Be intentional. When speaking with kids, be attentive and conscious of the environment and how they’re feeling. Speak at a time when you can focus, calmly. Put the phone on airplane mode, ensure there won’t be distractions, Kids know when we’re not fully present.
- Ask questions. It’s always good to start by engaging the teen with a question, asking if they know what’s happened, what they’ve heard about a situation, how it made them feel, etc. Curiosity sets the stage for openness and honest communication.
- Share what you know, from the heart. When relaying details, be age appropriate, avoiding anything potentially jarring or gory, but also being direct about the matter. It’s OK to share emotions here, in fact it’s welcomed. The more we can model thoughtfulness and let kids feel the way they feel, without trying to fix, mold, influence, the better. By listening from the heart, we show kids it’s OK to feel scared and that courage comes from feeling the feelings and moving forward.
- Create safety. If for some reason, there is worry or fear for safety, talk about real-life circumstances for preparedness, just as you would in relation to stranger danger or other emergency action such as a fire, etc. Also, make sure teens know they can come to you or another trusted adult any time for support.
- Emphasize and enact compassion. Now, more than ever, this world needs compassion in every facet of life. It should be taught in schools, practiced at home, and upheld as a way to prevent tragedies such as mass shootings or other conflict-oriented strife. Empathy goes a long way when it comes to our mental health–all of us. When we can see things from different perspectives it gives us the gift of understanding. What’s more, when we come from understanding, we’re less likely to focus on what differentiates us and more likely to focus on what unites us, overall.
The intense subject matter regarding tragedy needs to be handled thoughtfully and with awareness and presence. What is so vital to our relationships with growing teens, is coming from a place of compassion and concern. Giving teenagers space to feel whatever they need to feel, supporting them, and holding space for them to articulate how they feel and what they need goes a long way. This isn’t about doing it perfectly; it’s just about showing up. There will be times where you may need additional support. Don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals who can offer this guidance. You will never be sorry you did. It takes a village.