It takes all of our strength as grown-ups to not give in to despair, anxiety, and fear in the face of yet another young person accessing an assault rifle and murdering his peers. School is supposed to be a safe place for all children — teens included.
As the political debates about gun control make our brains feel like exploding, we have to remember to reach out to the adolescents in our care. If it is that tough for us to wrap our heads around, how much harder is it for teens? We must be proactive in engaging teens in conversation every day, about life, about what is important to them, and about the awful things that happen in the world. When something truly terrible happens, it is even more important to take the time to listen, witness, and validate their struggles. And this often means admitting that we don’t have the answers.
Teens have the capacity to reason, to wrestle with abstract concepts, and to articulate their feelings. But their brains are still developing, as is their self-concept, their ideas about who they are in the world. A random act of extreme violence will shake their new identities and burgeoning belief systems to the core, and they need calm, kind adults to prop them up as they try to make sense of their new reality. They need to know what to expect as much as possible, who they can count on. We know it isn’t always easy, so here are a few tips from the experts.
Fear and trauma responses can sometimes look like anger and disconnect. The teen who is suffering the most, without the ability to articulate and share their feelings, may be the one who needs your best efforts. Often teens find it easier to talk about tough topics when they are involved in an activity. Consider a cooking project, or gathering some art supplies, maybe magazines for collage. Or how about the ingredients to make a mini volcano? As you create something together, you can talk about how the shooter was a volcano waiting to blow, and how many feelings are often seething underneath. The teen can write down questions they have about life or list things that make them feel like blowing their top, and these items can be folded and put into the volcano before you set off the eruption together.
This technique helps release anger through a structured activity providing an opportunity to discuss anger and to problem solve. It works well individually and in groups with preschoolers to teens.
- Small paper cup or medicine cup (Dixie brand bathroom cups work great)
- Plastic cereal bowl
- One container of Play-Dough (The kind that comes in a 4-pack) or homemade.
- White vinegar
- Dishwashing liquid
- Baking soda
- Red and yellow food coloring
- Place a small paper cup upright on top of an upside-down plastic bowl. Secure it with a few pieces of tape. Wrap it in play dough to make a volcano, leaving the mouth of the cup open. Pour ¼ cup white vinegar, two squirts of dishwashing liquid, and several drops of food coloring into the “mouth” of the volcano.
- If the child wishes, they can write down or dictate things that upset them (make them scared or angry or mad) on tiny pieces of paper and place them in the volcano.
- Spoon in a heaping teaspoon of baking soda and watch the eruption!
- For instant replays, alternate adding a little more baking soda and vinegar. A group can make a larger volcano using a large salad bowl and more playdough. Miniature people, animals, and props can be added to add aspects of dramatic play.