What to Do When: Five Ways to Support Teens + Yourself in the Era of School Shootings
May 09, 2019
Yesterday the news struck. Another school shooting. I can’t handle it. I don’t know how to help my daughter when we hear about one. She is starting high school in the fall, and I don’t know if I can handle four more years of this fear. Help!
There are few events that strike fear in our hearts, our homes, and our communities like the senseless act of a school shooting. With images and snippets flashed on television and streamed over social media, it is natural to feel fearful about the safety of your child and their school. Beyond limiting exposure to media, it’s critical to know exactly what to do when tragedy strikes so you can support your teen and yourself.
- Lean into your support system and self-care habits. To assuage your teen’s anxieties, you need to first address your own. When you fly on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. The same is true now. It is critical to put your oxygen mask on first - to take care of your needs - so you can be centered and supportive for your child. Taking care of you means reaching out to a trusted family member or friend to talk through your concerns. Talking through your concerns with someone else prior to talking to your teen will allow you to take some of the emotional charge out of your words so you can tend to your child’s needs. Equally as important as your support system is self-care. Self-care is a necessary component to activate resilience which will allow you to respond rather than react. Taking care of you also models the practice for your teen which can reduce stress, anxiety, and fear. Self-care habits may include meditation, yoga, exercise, a long walk, or even listening to music. One of my favorite methods of self-care is simply breathing - deep breathing. When a teen is feeling stressed, the fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered. Practicing a deep breathing exercise such as inhaling through your nose to a count of eight, holding and exhaling through your nose to a count of eight, quiets the fight, flight, or freeze response and leaves you feeling more calm and present.
- Listen to and talk with your teen. Teens send us messages - verbally and nonverbally - every day about how they are feeling and what is going on in their world; they are able to communicate their thoughts and their feelings. When a tragedy strikes, listen to what your teen is telling you with their words and their behaviors. Acknowledge their feelings, and be attentive to their concerns, while also helping to put their fears into proportion to the real risk. Take note that their experience of the tragedy is different than yours so let them take the lead on telling you how they are feeling, rather than you saying, “You are sad” or “You are mad”. This is an opportunity for them to explore what they are truly feeling.
- Encourage teens to feel their feelings. Give teens the space to feel what they are feeling. Often, teens will hold back on sharing their feelings as they feel they will worry parents or other adults. However, acknowledging your emotional state - sad, mad, overwhelmed, even relieved - is a necessary step in healing. If you notice your teen struggling with feelings of sadness, avoid asking what they need to feel better. Instead, ask “What do you want to feel” or “How would you like to feel differently?” Statements such as these remove the stigma of good and bad feelings and leave them just as feelings. Suspend judgment and listen with empathy. There is no need to offer anything except acknowledgment that it is okay to feel whatever they need to feel. Additionally, give your teen permission to cry, curse, or vent about their feelings. Suspend judgment and listen. Teens need to express themselves to move through the feelings and develop emotionally.
- Offer assurance rather than promises. Having teens feel safe is equally as important as our desire to keep them safe. However, making claims such as, “I promise nothing will happen to you” can backfire leaving kids feeling the opposite of safe. Teens often view these statements with skepticism and question their ability to trust those that make promises like this. Rather, make assurances such as, “Here’s what we know, and here is what I think we can do to feel more confident about our safety. What do you think?” This is an honest response that also encourages teens to share their thoughts and feelings.
- Know the warning signs of anxiety and depression. Every child responds to trauma differently. Most teens bounce back to normal activities relatively soon after a tragedy. Some adolescents, though, require more time and assistance, especially if depression or deeper levels of anxiety have been triggered by a traumatic event. Indications of anxiety and depression can include: withdrawal from peers and activities, a change in academic performance, stomach aches, headaches, weight loss, sleeplessness, nightmares, fatigue, or a general loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Stay on alert for indications of anxiety and depression as some teens may not show signs of stress until sometime after the event. Again, every child and adolescent will respond differently.
I know this is a scary time for teens, families, and communities. Please know that the most important thing you can do this day and every day is something you are already doing: paying attention to their needs, listening, and responding with empathy, and, lastly loving them, fully and wholly.
I’d love to hear from you. If you have questions or comments about supporting teens, parents, and educators during or after a school tragedy, please share them below.