We’d all like to protect our teens from the heartache and devastation that accompanies a disaster or traumatic event, such as a terrorist attack, a shooting, or even a severe car accident. The truth is, however, that most of the time these things are beyond our control. If your child has had a violent or traumatic experience, you can’t go back in time to erase what has happened. What you can do, however, is support your teen as he or she learns how to cope and navigate strong, scary feelings. Here are some tips on helping support your teen after a disaster.
1. Monitor Media
While you might not have controlled the types of media your teen views for a few years now, right after a disaster, particularly if he or she knows people involved (or was involved him- or herself), it’s wise to monitor viewing and reading about the event. First, rehashing what happened over and over is not healthy, especially immediately after it happens. Secondly, it’s very possible that details will be added to, left out, or otherwise portrayed inaccurately. This can be very upsetting to someone who knows what actually happened.
Ask your teen to refrain from constantly accessing updated reports of the event. See if you can agree on a time limit; maybe watching or reading for two, 15-minute sessions per day would be agreeable to you and your child. During these times, make yourself available to answer any questions or to be a sounding board about what was read or viewed.
2. Reassure Your Teen That He or She Is Safe
Once the emergency has passed, support your teen by letting them know that he or she is safe. They’re safe at home, with you, and the immediate event is over. If your teen needs medical care, assure him or her that the doctors are doing what they need to ensure safety of any victims. If you have had to be relocated, do what you can to ensure that that new place is safe, too.
Teens are not adults, and during scary times, it’s likely that they will need some reassurance. Your teen might regress in some ways. For example, they might want a nightlight or even to leave the bedroom light on while sleeping. They might even come into your room in the night. Comfort your teen as best you can, and don’t worry about these behaviors in the short term. As he or she processes what has happened, they will begin to get back to normal.
3. Stick to a Routine
Your teen had a routine before the traumatic event occurred. It probably included getting up, showering and getting dressed, going to school, going to sports practice or an afterschool job, coming home to do homework, eating dinner, and hanging out before bed. When something traumatic occurs, the regular routine tends to be disrupted. Try to get back to it as soon as you can. If you can’t, try to adopt a “new normal” in terms of a routine.
This will give your teen something to depend on. Things seem less scary when you know what is going to happen next, and this type of routine will inject normalcy into a situation that can be anything but normal. Even if your teen can’t return to school for a while, he or she should still create a routine around the tasks that can be done.
In addition to a regular routine, try to get your teen back into a regular sleep cycle, good nutritional patterns, and a plan to get physical activity or exercise. All of these can promote physical and mental healing. Also, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, or not getting enough exercise can make your teen feel worse in ways that are not related to the trauma. You might need to take more control over these areas than you have been in recent years in order to support your teen after a disaster; assure your teen that they will be back in control of their habits and routines as soon as possible.
Some teens (and some adults!) tend to want to close themselves off to deal with their most negative feelings in private. While you should respect this desire, one way to support your teen is to make sure they know that you are available to talk to. Don’t be afraid to bring up the event; it’s possible that your silent teen might just be waiting for you to begin talking about the topic.
If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you, try not to take it personally. Instead, find them someone else to talk to. You might encourage your teen to talk to a teacher, guidance counselor, or social worker at school; most schools will provide counseling if student have been affected by a disaster. Or you can arrange for him or her to see a mental health professional. A support group can be helpful, as can “hangout sessions” with friends who might be going through similar feelings.
5. Watch Out for Warning Signs
Depending on the type of disaster or trauma and how personally your teen has been affected, you might begin to feel concerned once some time passes and he or she is not back to normal. Understand that grief and shock are individual emotions and that one person’s recovery might take longer than another’s. With that in mind, keep your eye out for warning signs that your child isn’t coping well.
These can include nightmares or insomnia, flashbacks, complaints of physical pain, symptoms of extreme anxiety or of depression, substance use or abuse, losing interest in activities and friends, and even suicidal thoughts. If you notice any of these symptoms, call his or her doctor or mental health counselor. If you are fearful for your child’s safety, go directly to the emergency room or call 911.
Helping your teen cope with a disaster or traumatic event is difficult, but with the help of a mental health professional, your child will be able to pick up the pieces and get back to regular life. The day will come soon when you see glimpses of your child that remind you of who he or she was before the event, and those days will come more and more often. Remain patient and don’t be afraid to seek help to support your teen through a traumatic time.