10 Ways to Help Teens Cope with Tragic News
Dr. Tara Cousineau is a clinical psychologist, mother, and Aunt. She is founder of BodiMojo.com for teenagers, a health engagement platform for teens leveraging web and mobile technologies to inspire healthy living. The use of BodiMojo.com by teen girls has shown to have a significant effect on improving girls’ attitudes about their own body image. Tara also blogs at BodiMojo.com/blog and TeensInBalance.com.
Just a couple weeks have passed since the heartbreaking events in a small town in New England, just miles from where I grew up as a child and where high school friends are now raising their families. Yet one doesn’t need to live near the scene of such a tragic, unthinkable act of violence to confront the disbelief and anguish facing the children and families in that community, for we can all imagine ourselves in the village of Sandy Hook, Ct. We all remember what it was like to be a small child in a bustling classroom full of color and wonder.
My daughters, Josie (12) and Sophie (15) knew about the event in Connecticut before they even got off the school bus on Friday. Growing up today in a hyperconnected, play-by-play world offers little chance for reflection, pondering, or protection of a harsh reality. Facebook updates, tweets from Justin Bieber and Rihanna, and Instagrams of affirmations sped through the social networks like wildfire—before parents or aunts and uncles could even absorb the news and figure out how to discuss it at home and with family.
My seventh grader, stealing some moments on my iPad to check her Instagram profile on the Friday evening after the incident, flashed before me an image of a (supposed) child’s note to parents while in a school lockdown along the lines of “I’m sorry I was a bad kid.”
“He was shot minutes later!” she exclaimed.
Opportunity for discussion about misinformation, why she took my iPad without asking, and reviewing again which friends she’s connected to, I thought. (Best to find a quiet moment over the weekend for that.) Not minutes later, my teen came home from a friend’s house, walked past us parents who muted the TV. “I hate this story,” she announced as she stomped off to bed. Yah, me too.
Earlier in the week, Sophie had babysat for two little girls, who wanted extra hugs before bedtime; it was a moment she delighted in. Part of growing up is to realize you have the privilege and power to comfort and care as a basic human condition. This is especially so when it happens outside the family. The world becomes even bigger, and you discover that you can make a difference in other people’s lives, even for a moment.
While parents, aunts, and uncles regroup and muster up inner calm to engage with the kids, teenagers are already digesting and coping with the news online and offline. The hard part to witness is how my teens are beginning to believe “This happens all the time now.” Now, as in their short lifetime. That’s how I understood it from my Josie.
Last year, I received a text from Sophie, an “I love you” in the middle of the day. I thought it was a joke, given that we were in a phase where I was just too uncool to relate to. It turned out the middle school was presenting Rachel’s Challenge to the 8th graders, a nonprofit organization created after the death of Rachel Joy Scott, a teen victim in the Columbine school shooting. The mission is to educate students about bullying, create safe environments for students, and to initiate a chain reaction of kindness. Sadly, since that school presentation, a number of tragic public events have occurred; the most recent being the July shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on opening night of The Dark Knight. The anticipation of going to an opening night has for many teens been stripped away as one of the joys of adolescence. Who could trust anyone dressed in character now?
Of course, based on sheer risk facts and numbers, these mass shooting are rare events. Yet they punch a deep wound in the national psyche and foster an unrelenting low-grade anxiety in our homes and schools. Teens turn to their friends and confidAunts, though, for support and comfort. Parents can be there for them, guide them, and even unplug the media at home as best as possible, but Savvy Aunties are the ones who can really be there for them. No heavy discussion. They can just be.
Yet when things are too big and too awful to fully comprehend, what can Savvy Aunties do to support teen nieces and nephews? Here are some things I’ve observed from the teens in my life and those I’ve come to know in my practice:
1. Do nothing.
Just hang out, and let them find comfort in your presence. Practicing mindfulness—or being fully present in the moment without judging yourself or others. This is a skill to be nurtured by oneself and among others.
2. Do something small.
Reach out; engage in an act of kindness; show them that you care. Bake brownies together or help them with the chores they tend to avoid.
3. Do something big.
Help them step outside of themselves and be courageous…something that might make them a bit uncomfortable even if they know it’s the right thing to do like saying “Hello” to someone they typically might not pay attention to or reaching out to someone who is otherwise invisible. They might also consider standing up to someone who’s ridiculing or bullying another person. Or they could stand up for themselves.
4. Practice Gratitude.
Every day brings gifts if your nieces and nephews pay attention to the wonder of their world. Even in dark times, there are moments of joy, delight, hope, and serendipity in nature, at home, or with friends.
5. Avoid comparisons.
This is really hard to practice in a world of judgment and perfectionism. Many of us measure self-worth through our perceptions and cultural expectations (i.e., what you believe others might think about you—like comparing what we look like, our body image, what we have or don’t have, who deserves more or less, or feeling like you have no right to complain or be sad compared to others.) These are the seeds of self-doubt and shame. It takes daily practice to be aware of and fend off unhelpful social comparisons.
6. Show compassion.
First, help them have empathy for themselves. They should know that they are worthy, loveable, and irreplaceable. Then, help them sprinkle that kindness and compassion onto others. How do your teen nieces and nephews show empathy for themselves? For others?
Draw, paint, write, sing, dance, build. Let them use their imaginations to express their feelings, thoughts, desires, and hopes. Being creative allows us to immerse ourselves in the present moment and in the beauty and ingenuity of our minds to imagine new ideas, things, and possibilities.
Get them involved in something that goes beyond just clocking in community service hours in order to graduate. Don’t do the minimal, but let them try to stretch themselves a bit farther. They’ll likely find that they can get more out of volunteering than they thought.
9. Be hopeful.
While the world will bring sorrow and joy, disappointment and triumph, all of us will experience comfort, grief, pain, and loss. It’s how we learn to cope with challenges that enable us to have the grit to soldier on. Hope allows us to imagine something better or wonderful, to set goals and persevere. What do your nieces and nephews hope for themselves? For others?
10. Stay connected.
Human beings are wired for connection and belonging. It’s when those connected breakdown or disappear that suffering ensues. Allow them to ask for help; offer help. Reach out your hand. We’re all in this together…in one way or another.
Savvy Aunties, can you model for your nieces and nephews these ways of being in the world? After all, they soak in everything about you, no matter what you say. Be the person you want your nieces and nephews to be.
Published: January 1, 2013