Please note: this post contains discussion of difficult topics. For immediate assistance during a crisis, call 911. You can also call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor for free support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
As youth development professionals, we can play an important role in supporting young people when hard things are in the news. That role is magnified when the news is of yet another incidence of gun violence on school grounds, because they affect our youth directly. School shootings have become increasingly more common and can have effects on the mental health of youth both directly exposed to the incidents and can cause secondary trauma to those who experience it through the news, social media, online video, and through school shooter drills, now common at many schools.
Ignoring these incidents is not an option. While we sometimes have the impulse to avoid talking about topics that are difficult or sensitive, doing so leaves youth to process these complex issues on their own and opens them up to confusion and false narratives. Intentional, supportive dialogue with youth can help. Creating a safe space for reflection will allow teens to build critical life skills related to problem-solving, emotion management, resilience, and self-control.
Today we will take a look at how to frame those conversations, featuring an excerpt from the BGCA Youth Development Resource How to Talk to Teens About Traumatic Events. If you haven’t led these kinds of conversations before, it can be difficult to know what to say or what questions to ask. This can easily be run as a live virtual meeting if circumstances require.
Here are some ways to initiate dialogue with young people about school shootings:
Address the Incident Directly
Show teens that you understand what is on their mind and are here to support them by initiating dialogue about the incident. Don’t wait for teens to come to you to strike up conversation, instead ask them direct questions such as:
- “Tell me what you’ve heard about [the incident]?”
- “What do you know about [the incident] that took place this week?”
- “What have you seen or heard about [the incident] on the news or on social media?”
Show Willingness to Answer Questions
It is important for teens to know that you are here to support them and that they view you as a resource. Make sure to show willingness to talk and answer questions about the incident by saying things such as:
- “I am here to talk and answer any questions you may have about [the incident].”
- “I know that this is an upsetting time for many of you, please know that I am here to answer any questions or concerns you have about [the incident].”
- “Does anyone have any questions about what happened during [the incident]?
Validate and Listen to Feelings
Ask teens to share their feelings about the incident, and respond with empathy. It is also important to respond with validation that you are listening, without directly telling them how they should feel or that you know how they feel. Here are some helpful prompts:
- “It sounds like you are feeling [sad/upset/scared] about this [incident].”
- “Do you feel safe at school, the Club, and our community? What is it that you’re worried about?”
It is important to validate why teens are feeling the way they are – if we just discount their feelings with throwaway statements such as “You are going to be fine” or “I know how you feel,” we shut down the conversation and teens may no longer feel safe bringing up their emotions.
This three-minute video is ideal to share in staff meetings or training:
You can download the entire How to Talk to Teens About Traumatic Events Guide, which also includes steps to get started, self-care tips, emotional check-in activities, and teen activism project ideas, here.
Consider sharing this list of nine critical warning signs of violence from Sandy Hook Promise with your Club or Youth Center staff, particularly those who work with teens.
To learn more about how to support youth who are grieving, Boys & Girls Club staff can access resources in our Be There initiative, a comprehensive approach to help Clubs build supportive relationships and integrate best practices to cope with everyday loss, grief and bereavement at BGCA.net/bethere. Please note: You will need a BGCA.net login to access this site.
Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we posted this blog about supporting youth who want to be more active in supporting policy change in their communities:
If you find yourself or someone you know in need of additional support during this difficult time contact:
- National Alliance for Grieving Children: Find grief support and resources in your area on their website
- SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990: 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 for 24/7, 365 day-a-year, national text line dedicated to providing immediate crisis text support for people who are experiencing emotional distress.
- Mental Health America: Find services and support in your area, learn about more about mental health and wellness on their website.