How to Help Your Teen Cope When Tragedy Hits


This world can be a scary place. Recent events like the Los Angeles Unified School District being shut down because of a possible terrorist threat and the Uber driver in Kalamazoo, MI who killed six random people hit close to home for many of us and our teens.

With younger children, parents can shield them from these tragedies or at least minimize their awareness. With teens, it’s all out there, whether they hear about it at home or not. In fact, you should discuss it at home, so that you know your teen has accurate information.

As parents, our job is to keep our kids safe. The scary reality is that while we do our best, we are not always in control of other forces. What we can do is talk to them early and often. Make sure they know what to do if they feel uncomfortable in a situation or with a person. Teach them to trust their instincts and speak up when things don’t feel right.

But, even with starting the conversation, tragedies still happen. What can we do if/when something terrible happens?

Validate their feelings. Let them know that it’s okay to be scared, sad, anxious, etc.  As in everything else, be there for them. Remind them that they can count on you for support ALWAYS.

Allow yourself not to have all the answers.   You can let them know you wish you understood why this happened, but sometimes things don’t always “make sense.”  This can be a particularly difficult concept for teens who are trying to figure out how they fit into the world, and can lead to big existential questions.

Don’t use empty platitudes, lie to make them feel better, or give false hope. This may work for your younger child, but teens are too smart for this, and it makes anything else you say less valid.   The reality is you can’t promise this won’t happen again. But, you can remind them that these occurrences are rare.

Remain calm yourself (even if you’re not internally). At every age, kids pick up on our cues, so if you’re overly anxious, they will be too.

Take care of yourself. Use your own self-care and coping strategies to deal with your intense feelings, so that you can take care of your teen. Make sure they are not feeling like they have to take care of you.

 Empower them to be a helper. We often can’t make sense out of tragedy, but we can use that energy to help others who are struggling. Writing letters to the victim’s families, donating blood, or helping with a fundraiser can be powerful healing tools.

And most importantly, know when professional help is needed. If your teen is showing signs of extreme stress or anxiety (afraid to go to school, leave the house) or marked mood or behavior changes (drop in grades, change in sleeping or eating), that’s the time to get help or support for your teen.

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