How to Talk to Your Teen About Traumatic Events – Dr. Angela Derrick
“Since Columbine, nearly 200,000 children have been exposed to gun violence at school.”
–The Washington Post
In the aftermath of the latest school shootings, the safety of our children and the safety of the school environment is on everyone’s mind.
Students around the nation are repeatedly exposed to the details of these traumatic events by witnessing upsetting images on television and social media. Given this, parents are wondering how they can be prepared to help their child if they are exposed to a traumatic experience or event either directly or remotely via media images.
Trauma can affect the teen brain — but there is hope.
There is evidence that adolescents may be uniquely impacted by trauma because their brains are still in the process of growing and maturing.* However, recent research has focused on the brain’s ability to form new associations which can help in the healing process. This a concept called neuroplasticity. Although it is a complex process, the take away message here is that the brain canrecover from traumatic experiences over-time.
How to support your teen
If your teen seems to be impacted by a trauma, there are a number of things that you, as a parent, can do to promote a sense of safety, stability, calm, control, and support. Parents can try to do the following:
- Respond quickly with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Let your child know that you are available to them whether they want to talk or not. Don’t push them to talk but make it clear that you are there to support them and that you can handle doing so.
- Acknowledge and talk about experiences. Validate feelings to help teens manage their emotions. Let them know that their grief is expected given the circumstances and that expressing grief to others is normal and healthy.
- Emphasize stability through normalized routines, such as day-to-day activities at home and at school and spending time with friends.
- Connect to friends, loved ones, and the larger community to reduce or prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Help build teen empowerment and a sense of control or personal agency, such as through choices. Help your teen identify where they do have choices about their lives, such as making decisions about how to take care of themselves with exercise, nutrition, activities/hobbies, supportive relationships, etc.
- Help your teen find ways to get involved in causes that matter to them, such as though marches, writing letters to Congress members, volunteering, voting in elections, or anything else that contributes to their sense of making a difference in their community
- Encourage your teen to engage in grounding activities that are soothing for them and encourage a sense of being in the present moment. Some ideas might include yoga, meditation, dance, art, reading, talking a walk, enjoying nature, swimming, etc. Focusing on feeling safe and calm in the present is critical for adolescents suffering from the impact of trauma.
- Talk with your child’s school to make sure that you and your children are aware of the emergency safety protocols, which can also help with a sense of safety.
- Utilize therapy as a place to talk through reactions and learn skills to build coping.
- Recognize the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder, a more severe reaction to experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder include: intrusive, unwanted images, flashbacks, or nightmares related to the event, avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, changes in thoughts and mood, and greater reactivity following the event.If necessary, seek professional help for PTSDwith experts who specialize in this condition.
- Parents can continue to educate themselves on the various manifestations of trauma in teens. While traumas can cause short-term distress for most people (sleep problems, feeling nervous or on edge, having trouble working or going to school), not every child exposed to a traumatic experience will develop the more serious, long-lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This list here is just the beginning. The National Child Traumatic Stress Networkis an excellent resource for parents who are interested in furthering their understanding of the effects of trauma on their teen. The website includes a section on Helping Teens with Traumatic Grief.
Most importantly, parents, be available to your child and be responsive to their needs during difficult times. Know that your efforts can make a big difference in their ability to manage challenging circumstances now — and later in their lives. In fact, the National Center for PTSD reports that parental support is predictive of lower levels of PTSD in children.
Traumatic events are devastating, and more than half of all people will live through a trauma in their lifetime. Thankfully, help is available and there are steps we can take to support our children and ourselves.
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and Senior Clinical Advisor at Eating Recovery Center of Chicago and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. Insight Behavioral Health Centers provides specialized treatment for mood and anxiety disorders at five Chicago, Illinois treatment centers and one center located north of Austin, Texas in Round Rock. Dr. Derrick has studied and treated eating and mood disorders for over 15 years and is honored to help her clients build hope, self-compassion and resilience as they work towards recovery.
*Source:National Child Traumatic Stress Network