4 Tips for Talking with Children and Teens After a School Shooting

Following the events at Santa Fe High School that occurred last week, parents are curious about what to say or how to address this tragedy with their children and teens. As a school counselor and psychotherapist, I know firsthand the amount of emotional turmoil these events can reek havoc on the family and school settings.

There is much advice on the internet about how to address this; however, if you keep these tips in mind you will be able to navigate through this conversation in an effective manner:

1.       Ask Questions and Discuss What Your Child is Seeing on Social Media

Most children and teens utilize smartphones to access the majority of their information regarding current events. As an adult, it is easier to decipher between “fake news” and evidence based information regarding the tragedy. If you have not already, sit down with your child or teen and ask what type of information they have gathered regarding the shooting and ask them to show you where the found it. Ask them how they know the information is credible. If they struggle to understand, take this as a teachable moment and show your son or daughter how to look up news articles, teaching them which resources are most credible and which ones are not (think Wikipedia, friends sharing social media posts). As a rule of thumb, if it didn’t come from a news source it’s important to fact check.

2.  Don’t Tell Someone in an Emotional State “Just Calm Down”

It can be challenging figuring out how to help your child or teen emotionally regulate after a traumatic event. Many times our own distress and frustration can get in the way of helping us information gather, rather than put a band aid on the presenting problem. How many times as parents have we used the overstated, “Just calm down already!” in high emotional situations. This statement invalidates the feelings your child is experiencing. Instead try something like “Yes, this is a scary situation and I understand your emotion. How can I help you through these feelings right now?”

3.       Don’t Sugar Coat It

A majority of advice I see on the internet states the importance of reiterating the safety in our schools and enforcing that the likelihood of a shooting happening in THEIR school is minimal. I tend to discourage sugar coating this issue. The reality is school shootings are becoming a “new normal” for this generation. Students in school today have more active shooter drills than fire drills, and are very aware that there is a possibility a shooting can occur. Instead normalize their feelings of fear and anxiety, discuss safeguards in place at their specific school, and rehearse the plan provided by your child or teens school.

4.       Assess for PTSD Symptoms Early

Sometime after the trauma has occurred, it is important to assess exactly what your child experienced especially if they were a victim or in the school during the time of the shooting. When your child is ready, ask them what they saw, experienced, and their involvement with the incident. If you notice symptoms such as avoiding school, recurrent distressing dreams, or persistent negative emotional states that last for more than a month than it is time to seek treatment. Your child may have early signs of PTSD which is a mental illness that cannot resolve itself without mental health professional intervention.

If you or someone you love is looking for therapeutic services in the Palm Beach Gardens area contact Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI at 405-323-1786 for a free 30 minute phone consultation to see if I would be the right fit for you today!

What Parents Need to Know About the Social Media Children and Teens are Consuming

It would be an understatement to say that social media govern the lives of our youth at any given moment. A recent study reports that tweens ages 8-12 spend an average of 6 hours in front of a screen a day, for teenagers 13 and above that number increases to 9 hours a day. Our youth are spending more time online than they are sleeping, in school, or doing any other activity.  As a parent, it can be confusing and concerning navigating the waves of the technological boom and deciphering an appropriate boundary when it comes to social media.

The internet is a vast plethora of 7.4 million people’s imaginations. The information shared can be dangerous, violent, sexually exploited and worse. Our children’s minds are not fully developed to consume this content and distinguish the validity or even make decisions about it. Even adults at times have trouble distinguishing this content, can we expect our children and teens to be able to decipher it without support or knowledge from a caring adult?

You may be thinking “Well my child is advanced enough to understand it”. Unfortunately, science says otherwise. The prefrontal cortex, the area which covers the front part of the brain, controls planning, complex thoughts and behaviors, decision making, personality expression, and moderates our social behavior. Essentially, it governs our executive functioning. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25, many of our children do not have the ability YET to carry out the critical thinking necessary to be safe online.

In addition, studies have also shown that social media can be addicting. In fact, app developers are actually working to make these apps addicting so they increase their revenues, spending thousands of dollars on studies of the brain to market and reel in our vulnerable youth. Scientists have found that teenagers can even experience withdrawal symptoms from social media. You may have seen witnessed some of these in your own children such as panic attacks when electronics get taken away, anxiety about being away from electronics or wifi, anger, and temper tantrums. We wonder why our children’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The media they are consuming is a large contribution.

Consistent social media usage also leads to low self esteem, cyber bullying, and can increase suicidal ideations for teenagers already struggling with depression. Bullying no longer stops when your child gets in the car to go home from school. Now harassment follows them home on their devices, preventing the opportunity for children to recharge and engage in self care.

If you haven’t downloaded and looked at some of the things your child is consuming online, you are living in parenting La La Land. Teens post nude photos, suicide ideas and plans, gang related or violent material, and drugs and alcohol. 30% of teens have reported in a recent study that they believe their parents know “nothing” or “a little” about what they do online.

Last week I spent a lot of my time providing support to a family who recently found out their 14 year old son was sending sexually explicit content and sharing homicidal ideations with an active plan to friends on an app called Hangouts.  This app is accessed through Gmail accounts, and friends can message back and forth in group chats. It broke my heart to watch a loving and caring mother begin to see the reality of what is happening on her child’s social media. For this family, early intervention is no longer an option. They are now playing catch up trying to provide the support needed for this young man.

Be proactive when it comes to restricting media content from your children. Taking away electronics if they have already had unlimited access will be harder than setting firm and clear boundaries in the beginning. Provide regular restrictions on the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Encourage them to engage in their own imagination and be mindful in the moment instead of SnapChatting it. Look for signs of social media addiction such as anger and anxiety from being away from electronics, being up all day/night in front of a screen, and being secretive regarding their social media usage. Make sure you know your teen’s phone and computer passwords, Apple ID, and the multiple accounts they may have.

Parents are responsible to protect their children. Social media provides a false security because we do not see the danger in the moment. It is our responsibility to research and discuss the dangers of social media with our children. Provide incentives for them to be without social media until 16 years old, when the brain is more capable to consume such confusing messages. When you do allow social media, track it on a regular basis using apps like Onward, Onpact, and Life360. There is an effective way to parent in the world of technology and social media!

If your teen is engaging in alarming content or you see signs of internet addiction it may be time to talk to a professional. For a free consultation for therapeutic services contact Michelle Smith RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786