It is difficult to talk with teens on a good day, and far harder after the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn. It is important to begin your conversation by being calm and collected, open to hear whatever your teen may say.
Your next step is to find out what they know, what they think, and how they feel about it. You may be surprised by their intense feelings or their lack of interest. Whatever the case, you want to accept them “where they are.” Answer the questions they have as simply and directly as possible, without elaboration. Reassuring them that they are safe, that their school and community is safe, and if need be, concretely point out the ways that their school protects them.
Excessively Anxious Teens
For teens who have high anxiety and cannot stop thinking about the tragedy, it is important for them to express their fears in many ways, and you might suggest that they write about it, and/or draw. Concretizing their feelings may help them to see their anxiety in the light of day and may enable you to allay their fears. If not, consider a technique that I call “changing the channel” (for a complete explanation please visit realpsychology.com and search under OCD). This essentially asks the person to limit the time they are obsessing and then directs them to change the channel in their mind.
I also recommend limiting the amount of actual information that the teen is getting via the various media sources. A teenager who is obsessing may be anxious for other reasons and therefore their reaction is even more intense. If they have trouble sleeping, or functioning, and if this persists for more than a week, it is advisable to seek professional help.
Mildly Affected Teens
For teens who are talking about the incident in a slight manner, it may be illustrating their protective defense mechanisms. Such teens can only process so much information, and they are unconsciously protecting themselves. Another interpretation may be that they do not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings. To encourage this, you can bring up the topic in a mild way, mentioning how difficult it is for you to accept and understand the events, and how it makes you feel sad. If your teen does not respond, leave it alone. They are dealing with it in their own way.
For teens who are not talking about it at all, they may feel too overwhelmed to think about it. Or they may lack empathy. You will know which extreme is operating, as it will be consistent with your teen’s personality and style. If they feel overwhelmed, let them know that you are ready and able to talk whenever they want. Also, you can suggest that they might want to use a different method to express their feelings, such as art or music. For the child who does not have empathy, this might not be the time to try to develop it. But it may be an indication that counseling would be beneficial. Teens are by definition, narcissistic, and so they often do not get involved in the outer world. However, an event of this magnitude should cause some reaction.
This tragedy is only beginning to sink in. Teens will process the tragedy in many different ways, and we should not judge them for the degree to which they talk about it. Symptoms, such as anxiety, fears, stomach and headaches, refusal to separate, go to school or engage in normal activities should be temporary. As a parent, you should try to normalize their lives by following routines as much as possible.
Teens may want to create their own memorial or do something to express their sentiments. Parents should be supportive and encourage their teens to find an outlet for their emotional response.