It can be difficult to know how to support grieving and traumatized teens following an event such as the gun violence episode at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan. I regularly see clients from this town, which has grown a lot in the past 10 years, but still considers itself a small, close-knit community. I grieve certainly for the children and families directly affected and for those indirectly traumatized, but I also mourn that there will likely be a new sense of distrust and betrayal that may negatively impact this community for years.
If you are a parent of a teen who was at the high school or even those who heard about yet another school shooting, it can be hard to know what to do or say. This can be partly because many people are uncomfortable with difficult emotions, such as grief, loss, fear or even terror that may result from this type of situation. When supporting a person struggling after such an event, most people are afraid to make these emotions worse. So their natural tendency is to avoid talking about the event or quickly skirt the topic if it comes up. They may even dismiss a teen’s thoughts or emotions in an effort to “fix” the problem: “You’ll be fine in a few days and you’ll forget all about it.”
While this avoidant tactic is well intentioned, it can actually get in the way of healthy healing interventions for grief and trauma.
The main result is that the grieving or traumatized person feels they are not heard or understood. This need is fundamental to humans, especially those dealing with difficult situations. If we feel “held” and accepted for our difficult emotions and experiences, this can be healing by itself. This is often why psychotherapy is helpful, because therapists do not dismiss or judge a person’s experiences of trauma or loss.
Certainly, it can be very helpful for a teen to have professional mental health counseling at a time like this and I would recommend that, especially for those directly affected. However, there is a great shortage of therapists right now, so that might not be possible.
Parents, however, can adopt many of the listening skills and open, accepting attitudes used by therapists to help their children heal from traumatic experiences. Consider these skills:
1) Learn to tolerate emotions. Many in our culture are raised to be uncomfortable around emotions such as sadness or panic, so they’ve unconsciously learned to turn away from them, minimize them, or deny them. But to be a compassionate presence for another’s difficult emotions means you have to be able to sit with those emotions and manage your own distress. This is a difficult skill, so be patient with yourself if it is not easy at first. If as a listener you allow your emotions to overwhelm the emotions of the person you are trying to help, this will, obviously, defeat the purpose of trying to be a supportive presence. It may even backfire in that the trauma survivor may try to suppress their emotions in order to protect you from becoming upset.
2) Try really hard not to immediately offer advice or solutions. Instead, be a neutral listener that provides a safe, warm, accepting environment for whatever arises for the person you’re trying to help. Step back a bit out of the conversation and dial back your desire to fix the situation. Most situations involving grief or trauma cannot be retroactively solved, but can only be processed and moved through in time. Offering a quick solution can feel dismissive.
3) Learn to be ok with silence and pauses. When in doubt, pause and be silent and present with the emotional pain. This simple skill is often overlooked, because most of us are socially conditioned not to leave awkward silences in conversations. We feel we must fill up that space with words. However, people struggling with difficult experiences need time to think, breathe and process their emotions in silence, without someone else jumping in to fill that space. In fact, emotions can be communicated without words, through a “felt sense”, such as a “heavy heart.” Feel the warmth in your heart and, with your silent presence, let that be enough.
Non verbals are important too — a heavy sigh or glistening, tear-filled eyes can be more meaningful than words.
4) Listen and reflect emotions. Check out my parenting handout on Reflective Listening. While the examples given are for younger children, this skill works just as well for teens and adults. The goal is to reflect or mirror back the person’s words or emotions without exaggerating them or minimizing or avoiding them. As the list of benefits in the handout notes, this helps the teen understand his or her experiences and learn to manage them in healthy ways. This can be especially important in a situation in which there is very likely a wide range of emotions: terror, confusion, grief, guilt, anger, despair, dread, avoidance, disgust, and relief. You may not know exactly what is going on for your child, but that’s fine. If you reflect back the rapidly changing emotions, you can’t go wrong.
5) If they aren’t trying to solve a problem for their teen, many parents engage in conversations with the goal of trying to understand their child better. While this is a good intention, consider that with reflective or supportive listening the goal is actually to help the trauma survivor understand their experience better. A parent’s need to understand should be a bonus, not the main goal. If you work from a paradigm of “understanding,” you may ask too many questions, pester for explanations, or work to get your child to move through emotions and find a solution too quickly.
6) Avoid inadvertently dismissing or invalidating the person’s emotions or experience. If they say they are sad, don’t say: “Well, you didn’t know the person who died that well and you’re young, you’ll get over it.” This tells the teen their experience isn’t real and can signal that their experience is abnormal or even that they are “crazy.” Instead, we need to normalize emotional reactions as human and universal.
7) Given all that, there is a point in healing where a teen may need some guidance on how to regulate their emotions, move past the grief and trauma, and find resilience and growth.
For example, it is important to initially recognize that fear or threat responses are normal following trauma, such as a school shooting. The brain will correctly label the site of the trauma as dangerous, but we need our rational brain to manage that fear. Parents can normalize the fear first, then at an appropriate point in time help a child learn to regulate their thoughts and emotions that arise so that they are no longer overwhelmed by distress.
8) Be comfortable discussing deeper topics that usually come up in these situations for survivors, such as survivor guilt and trying to make sense of the mystery of these events. Many teens may wonder why they were lucky to survive and others were not. The answer to that is certainly above my pay grade, in any case. Parents need to be ready to help teens tolerate the uncertainty and randomness of life. It is impossible to explain why a wonderful young life was ended so brutally and arbitrarily, so don’t even try. Being suddenly exposed to these adult topics at a young age can be destabilizing for adolescents, but many are quite mature and capable of comprehending them with space and time to discuss them. Knowing that adults also struggle with the incomprehensibility of the unfairness of life at least brings a sense of common humanity and that they are not alone in this struggle.
I hope this is helpful to the many families suddenly thrown into the deep waters of overwhelming grief and trauma. Please also consider some of the many online resources and books regarding surviving trauma including the following:
American Psychological Association. Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting.
-Common Ground crisis counselors. Call 1-800-231-1127; Text “Hello”; Chat with a crisis counselor.
-Oakland County crisis/suicide line. Call 1-800-231-1127.
-National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call 1-800-273-TALK .
-National Crisis Text Line. Text “Hello” to 741741.
The following resources are also available to help with conversations at home:
-The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). Talking to Children About the Shooting. http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/talking_to_children_about_the_shooting.pdf.
-National Association of School Psychologists. Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-safety-and-crisis/school-violence-resources/talking-to-children-about-violence-tips-for-parents-and-teachers.