My colleagues and I recently had a conversation about how we, as providers, can have an impact and a voice when responding shootings in schools, bars, churches – places that we think of as being safe. When we meet with teens in the clinic, amidst conversations about relationships, emotions, and other health concerns, we do our best to check in with our patients about this topic. How they have been feeling about what they see on the news? How has it affected their mood? Do they feel safe in their community?
But we don’t have a lot of time to cover such a big topic in a short clinic visit. Our best bet for promoting this conversation – like most conversations – is to give parents some tips and talking points. So, here are a few suggestions for talking with your teen about recent tragedies:
- Try to be open about your own emotions and reactions. It’s OK for your child to see that you are responding to the world around you with normal human emotions, and it’s a way to set an example that it’s OK for them to share their feelings as well. Without seeing adults react with sadness or anger to these types of events, it’s easy for children (especially young ones) to feel that violent acts are “normal” or “acceptable.”
- Let your teen know that you are available if they want to talk. Like most topics, this one should ideally happen in multiple conversations; it’s not something to be discussed and then checked off the list. And often, teens prefer to bring things up on their own terms. That being said, having a clear statement that the door is open for conversation can help make them comfortable to bring it up in the future.
- Check in with your teen about their mental health. Most parents feel like they have a decent handle on how their teens are doing emotionally, but sometimes there are things that might surprise you. The only find out how they truly feel is by asking specific questions. For example, you might say “there’s been a lot going on in the world these days that we’ve been seeing in the news, and it’s serious and sad stuff. I just wanted to check in with you – how are you processing all of that? Is it weighing on you?” You might directly ask, “How’s your mood been? What about your stress level?” If you identify anything that concerns you, it would be a good idea to check in with your teen’s healthcare provider.
- Talk to your teen about their own safety. For kids and teens (and all of us, really), after hearing or seeing about tragic events, it’s easy to worry that that you or your family might be a target of violence. It’s important to check in and see if your teen is having those thoughts. Let them know that they can talk to you if there is anything specific making them feel unsafe – like bullying at school, threats they see online, or friends who seem to be depressed or suicidal.
- Be mindful of your child’s exposure to violence in the media. Research has shown that exposure to violent media (TV, movies, video games) is related to things like aggression, emotional desensitization, nightmares, and fear of being harmed. Try to limit screen time in your teen’s life (especially bedrooms!). Watch TV or movies together with your kids when possible, so you can help them process what they are seeing. Choose carefully how much violent media you want your kids to be exposed to. You can do this by watching together, setting rules about certain movie ratings, channels, websites, or games, and exploring ways to monitor or block what your child can access on the TV or internet.
What’s the goal of all of this? A generation of teens who can process the tragedies around them and react in healthy and constructive ways to address this enormous problem.
- Mental Health America, “Talking to kids about fear and violence,” http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/talking-kids-about-fear-and-violence
- Child Development Institute, “How to talk to kids about tragedies in the media,” https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-media-violence/
- American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, “Media Violence,” Pediatrics , Nov 2009.
Here is an interesting blog on helping children sleep after tragedies.