In times of terror and tragedy, how can we talk with teenagers in a way that will help them cope and even thrive? I was encouraged to have some great conversations with my 14-year-old son this week regarding the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Ricin mailings, and the Texas Fertilizer Explosion…not to mention the other “regular” stresses that have impacted his everyday adolescent life. It’s not always easy to know how to start these conversations, what content to share, or how vulnerable to be ourselves, but it is possible to create opportunities for effective, deep sharing and reflection.
If it’s helpful for you, here are some simple introductory guidelines I’ve come up with over the years to help older people “T.A.L.K.” with students about difficult situations. None of these ideas are particularly new…just a common sense acrostic that I’ve developed as tragedies and terrors have passed by. These might seem simplistic, at first, but they set up a trustworthy framework for deep conversations.
- Take Time—Everyone processes difficulties differently. So take time to invest in teens in ways that build them up and show that you are “there” for them. Don’t disappear and isolate your “adult” coversations. Be attentive. Sharing your own feelings/thoughts is okay…but be careful to focus attention on the student(s). Taking time to use teens to codependently seek your own processing is selfish and ultimately harmful. Take time that is intentionally set aside to facilitate discussion or reflection for their sake. [Note: Another important "T" here is to "Trust that God is at Work" in the life of your teen. This takes tremendous pressure off of you to be the fix-it person in terrible times; Note 2: It is also important to be "Truthful" about events. Half-truths or false facts, even for the sake of protecting someone, can have an adverse effect later.]
- Ask Questions—Instead of doing all the talking or trying to direct the conversation, simply ask open-ended questions that will help teens articulate what they already know, or what they are already processing. Avoid advice at first (wait until they ask you or seem ready to receive) and avoid talking about yourself. Try hard to ask conversation starters that enable the student to verbalize and discover aloud for themselves. (e.g. “What do you know of what happened today?”; “What do you think causes people to do this?”; “How would you have responded if you had been there?”; “When things like this happen, what becomes the most important priority in your life?”; etc.)
- Listen—An adult who actually listens to teenagers is a rare and, therefore, a treasured person in our society. Most adults will hear an answer and then jump in with their own answers or explanations (inevitably discouraging a student from sharing again the next time a question is asked). In other words, don’t assume that just because you successfully asked a question that you will automatically successfully listen. To patiently hear and internalize and process what teenagers say (without butting in) is more than most adults have time for. Again, steps 1+2 come into play here. Take Time. Ask questions. And then, do what only a few do: Listen.
- Keep Calm—The environment we establish from our posture is influential. If we are panicked, most likely so will be our students. Set the tone of encouragement, reassurance, and relative safety. Normalize a loving environment in the midst of turbulence. Let teens know that you will take time, ask them questions, listen to them, and keep calm. In many ways, this process is similar to what a triage camp does in a time of crisis. Allow your student room to process what they need to process. And in your posture of calm, they will begin to explore with you, in a way relevant and unique to them, what they need to thrive through difficult scenarios.