How to Talk to Teens About Traumatic Events (page 3)
A traumatic event can be anything from the death of a friend, to a hurricane, to war. Events can be experienced up close and personal, or through the news media. Both ways can be traumatic to children and teens. Before talking with your teen about traumatic events, you should take time to think about the issue and consider what it means to your family. Each family is unique, with its own special history and past experiences of loss, trauma, and war.
Be open, available, and positive. Parents can create an environment that supports communication among all members of the family - even when the conversation is about war and terrorism. Finding time to have those conversations is not hard. One way is to use family times (such as mealtimes) to talk about what is happening in the world.
Express an interest in what your teen is hearing from friends. Teenagers are likely to discuss events they experience with their peers. In some cases, these conversations may contain wrong information. Help to correct any misinformation and reduce worry. Ask your teen how their friends are handling the situation. This can open a dialogue with parents. Teens will often tell you how their friend is but not how they are doing.
Make time to watch and discuss the news with your teen so you can help clarify misunderstandings or conflicting news reports. Teenagers have wide access to the news, whether on television and radio, in print, or on-line. Parents should monitor their teens for over-exposure or excessive fascination with media coverage. Limit the amount of time the TV is on in the house - especially if a scene is played over and over.
Share your thoughts. Be honest, but answers should be consistent with your child's level of understanding. Teenagers are beginning to understand abstract ideas and also to view the world in more realistic ways. They understand the concepts of unpredictability, death, and terrorism. Parents need to share with their teens that they, too, are thinking about the trauma and are there to answer tough questions or help with difficult feelings.
Be prepared for your teen to express a variety of thoughts, opinions, and feelings of anger, vulnerability, and fear. In times of loss, teens, just like others, have feelings of anger and fear and may become withdrawn. This is normal, so be patient and respectful of their views and concerns. An extra word of support or physical affection can help at these times. Monitor behavior over time; ongoing distress may signal a problem that requires professional attention. Be aware of any changes in their sleep or eating habits that might suggest they are overly frightened or worried. In the case of war, teenagers are most likely to be concerned about the effects on people they know, and about what the war means for their future. Traumatic events provide an opportunity to talk to your teen about your beliefs and values and about the many ways that individuals can, in small and big ways, contribute to making the world a safer place.
Keep routines and rules as normal as possible for your teen. Prioritize study time and time for relaxation. Caution your teen about reckless or risk-taking behaviors that may be a response to stress or uncertainty. Check with the school to see what resources they have available for your teen.
Act as a model for your teen. Show respect for differing views and avoid intense disagreements. Acknowledge that in a democracy, such as in the U.S., people can have strong and differing opinions about responses to terrorism, war, and natural disasters.
Stay connected to your teens. Plan meals together and other family activities. Be supportive of extracurricular interests by attending your teens' special events. A little extra support may go a long way to help teenagers feel more secure and safe. Be sure to tell teens they are loved.
At home, calmly revisit emergency plans and preparation (similar to what you do with fire and weather plans). Talking with teens about what to do can help them feel secure that parents have situations under control. Parents should develop back-up plans with relatives or friends to help with separation and reunification. Encourage your teen to help you with this. Your teen can help with food and water storage and location, plans for pets, and plans for young children or elderly members of the family.
Discuss your teen's school emergency plan. Parents should be aware of, and discuss with their teenager, plans that the school has set in place for crisis or emergency situations. Parents should also take the time to review emergency plans for when they are at work.
Take constructive steps to reach out or strengthen existing connections to your community. Many families will want to reinforce their family and community supports during this time. This can help not only the teen but also the entire family.
Encourage teenagers to create their own future by continuing to succeed in school, by making healthy choices, by looking out for one another and by engaging in community service.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).
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