Recent events including the shooting in a High School in Florida led me to wonder about how I would help my own teenager (my own kids are adults now) if I had one who experienced an “active shooter” situation with fatalities. I have years of training so I have a sense of how to intervene and the necessary skills to do so.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to stimulate a discussion of the issues and to provide some guidelines. It is not meant as a tutorial or as a complete “how-to” regarding talking to a teen. If you find yourself in the aftermath of an active shooter incident and feel that you are “in over your head”, seek professional help.
I am making some basic assumptions..
First of all, I am assuming that the teen is old enough and engaged enough to be able to discuss their feelings and their concerns. This does not mean that there are no emotional reactions such as bad dreams, crying, a sense of vulnerability and so forth.
Secondly, I am assuming that the emotional reaction to the event has not prompted PTSD level symptoms which are so disruptive that a professional intervention is required.
Thirdly, I am assuming that the adult interacting with the teen is not so overwhelmed by their own feelings that they really can’t assure their teen about anything.
That being said, before I made any attempt to help my teen deal with this type of event, I would take whatever time it took to make it clear that whatever he (or she) was feeling, it was okay to feel it and that I would do whatever was necessary to help them get through it. Along these same lines, I would let my child know that I also was impacted by the event.
I would, at the appropriate time, ask the teen what they were feeling. I would expect feelings including anger, anxiety, and guilt.
While I would get to the anger eventually, as anger is easily understood in this context, I would first attempt to address the guilt and the anxiety.
The message of guilt is that the person has done something wrong.
With this in mind, I would ask what it was that the teen felt guilty about. What do they believe they should have done that they did not. This is survivor guilt. I would do this before I reassured them that it wasn’t their fault. They already know this on some level but the guilt suggests that there is some doubt that must be addressed.
After they expressed themselves, I would attempt to address the issues they brought up. I would not argue with them but would, through questions, help them begin to see that there was nothing more they could have done to prevent the shooting. Finally, if appropriate, I would share that it appeared to me that there was nothing they could have done differently.
The message of anxiety is that there may be a future event which might cause severe harm.
Anxiety is understandable under these circumstances as these events occur without warning and with fatal consequences. Adults have difficulty with these types of events as well.
Because the event is unpredictable, the teen can become consumed with worrying that it could happen again. This reality, while highly unlikely, is always possible.
Thinking about future possible events can lead to bad dreams, a desire to avoid going back to school, feelings of vulnerability and so forth.
Here are two possible interventions I might try.
The first would be to explain what dreams are.
All of our brains are at work 24/7. At night, when we sleep, the activities of the day stop and the brain continues to “process” whatever issue we might have been struggling with during the day. These issues can appear in our dreams.
Dreams can be experienced as very real.
I would explain dreams to my teen and go on to say that when these dreams happen, we should acknowledge them, accept that they reflect our very real feelings, and then attempt to move past them by not allowing them to have power over us. This takes time and must be practiced. But, we can learn to defang our dreams.
I would then attempt to explain that while we can’t always prepare, or avoid, bad things which happen, we can do a lot to help us cope with an event which might happen in the future.
The example I would use is that of a fatal traffic accident.
Whenever we get behind the wheel of a car, we are aware that a drunk driver, an errant nail in a tire, or some unforeseen situation could result in a fatal accident which could kill us.
While we are aware of this, we still get in the car.
This is possible because we believe we are both prepared for the unforseen and are good drivers (We are prepared, alert, and attentive to other drivers.)
At some point, and I would choose very carefully when, I would explain that even if we do everything right, sometimes bad things happen including fatal accidents.
The analogy of a traffic accident can be used in the case of a school shooting.
I would explain that teachers are being trained to deal with these type of situations.
I would also tell my teen to talk about what they might look for in other students which might indicate that this person is troubled and needs to be helped. If they see something about which they are concerned, they need to tell a teacher. Also, if there is an active shooter in a school, then they need to be prepared to remain “calm”, lock the classroom door and shelter in place or do whatever the school has suggested they do in these situations. All of this is preparation.
Lastly, I would address the anger by validating it, explaining that the message of anger is that we perceive a threat we believe we can eliminate. From this perspective, I would suggest that my teen use the energy of the anger to organize with their friends to impact legislators to change the laws regarding gun ownership, background checks, and so forth.
Two caveats are important here.
The first is that this is not a complete discussion of dealing with the aftermath of an active shooter situation. It is only intended as a guide to help if you find yourself having to help a teen begin to deal with the emotions that follow from a traumatic event.
Secondly, while it may look easy in black and white, this process is not easy, can take a lot of time, patience and multiple attempts. While not easy, however, it is doable and worth the effort to implement.
As always, in these situations, professional help is always available and should be utilized.