For most parents, the news that 20 children had been murdered at their school felt like a punch in the stomach. Anyone who has a child, no matter what their age, felt a wave of sorrow as they imagined what the parents who lost their sons and daughters are feeling. Dr. Swanson at Seattle Mama Doc and the New York Times both have great posts about discussing the tragedy with younger children (as well as dealing with your own emotions.) I want to address how teens may be feeling, and what to explore with them.
First, sit down and listen. Ask open-ended questions like, “How did you hear about it?”, “How does all this make you feel?”, and “How have your friends reacted?” If you think they’re mature enough, you can ask what everyone in the nation is asking themselves: “Do you think there is any way things like this can be prevented?” Even if you don’t agree with their answer, listen and explore what they’re saying. You might learn something surprising, and even impressive, about how your teen thinks.
Here are tips for addressing reactions your teen might have to this event:
Fear: Teens may wonder how safe they are in their classroom or at school. If a madman can barge into a school in Connecticut and murder children, could they be gunned down, too? Unlike younger children, they may not be satisfied with simple reassurances that aren’t backed up with logic. But first, validate their fear. A really scary thing happened. They’re not the only ones who are afraid.
With teens, it’s best to discuss how what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, while horrifying and terrible, is extremely rare. Comparing it to car accidents can help; 20 students were killed at Sandy Hook, which is a tragedy, but a hundred times that number die in car accidents every year. The simple act of fastening their seatbelt lowers their risk of death substantially. Discuss other ways to keep themselves safe, like online safety, water safety, safe driving, and suicide prevention.
Grief: If your teen feels overwhelmingly sad about this tragedy, listen to their feelings, and give them lots of hugs if they’ll let you. Try to help your teen find a way to express their sadness. It might be sending a letter to the families of the victims (even if it’s never mailed), writing or painting a creative work of mourning, or simply posting thoughts on Facebook and empathizing with friends. If your teen is so sad you notice changes in their sleeping, eating, or interacting with friends and family, try having them speak with a counselor about their feelings.
Anger: One evildoing person can rob other innocent people of health, human rights, and even their lives. This is a hard reality for anyone to deal with, and anger is an appropriate response. They may feel furious with the killer, or angry at society for, in their view, allowing his crimes to happen. Talk through their anger with them. Encourage them to do something physical, listen to angry music, or other activities that might help them vent. Help them funnel their anger into action; are there causes they now want to support or be involved in?
Betrayal: Teens may feel betrayed by the world, by adults, by society, by (if they are religious) a God who let this happen. Tell them about all the people who stayed true to their convictions and values. Victoria Soto, a young teacher, hid her students from the gunman, and stood in front of the gunman when some tried to flee. When Dawn Hochsprung, the school principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist, heard gunshots, they ran to the sound instead of away from it, and tried to stop the shooter. A library clerk named Maryann Jacob successfully hid and saved the lives of 18 students.
Multiple other teachers and staff hid, protected, or alerted children, simply because they were courageous people who cared. Some of these adults died in the attempt, but I find the bravery of their actions uplifting when faced with such a senseless and evil act. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the name of the murderer in this post, and that’s not an accident. His name doesn’t deserve to live on in history; but Victoria, Dawn, Maryann, and others have names that deserve to be honored.
When I wrote this post, what struck me was how the parents of the children who died will never need this blog. They’ll never have the normal teenage issues with Charlotte, or Dylan, or James. Their child will never break curfew, text at the dinner table, communicate by shrugging, or date someone unsuitable. Remember that however much your teen may push your buttons, you have a teen, in all their conflicted, inconsistent, peer-loving, often maddening glory. Feel lucky, because you are, and feel grateful, because they’re here.