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Talking to Teens about Violence

THE SCENE

In 2001, my 15-year-old sat staring at the TV, horrified by the coverage of the school shootings in Santee, California. "My God," she said. "That could be me." If you are ever faced with a similar scene, you may find the following suggestions helpful.

What to Say
The best thing that we can do for our adolescent children is talk with them honestly about shootings and violence in America. And then listen carefully to what they say back to us.

Teenagers like and need a lot of privacy, so they may not be willing to share many details of their personal lives. However, let them know you're available, and feel free to talk with them about your feelings concerning school shootings. Here are some examples of what you might say.

I think this is terrifying.
Let kids know how you honestly feel about what happened. If you talk freely about your feelings, you're giving them permission to talk freely as well. Support your teen's feelings. If they seem indifferent, talk with them about how hard it is to cope with painful feelings.

I feel awful for those students and their families.
Compassion is an essential quality in a well-functioning human being. Letting your kids see your strong feelings about the victims nurtures compassion. It also helps teens distinguish between the shootings and film or video violence.

This is not likely to happen in your school.
Kids need to be reassured that they are safe. In fact, this kind of violence is not likely to occur at most schools.

I wonder if you feel safe at school?
Try to get a sense about how your kids are feeling at school. Talk with them about things that you and your community are doing to keep schools safe.

If someone you know talks a lot about violence or threatens violence, to herself or others, tell me or someone at school about it.
This is a life-or-death conversation. In spite of their natural tendencies to protect each other and respect privacy, teenagers need to know when they should break their code of silence and confide in an adult about another teen's behavior. In doing so, they're actually helping troubled kids get necessary assistance.

They keep saying that the boy who did the shooting was picked on at school.
It is important to talk with kids about alienation, coping with anger, and social ostracism. While most high-school social situations will not lead to violence, life can be pretty painful for kids who don't fit the norm.

I don't know exactly why this happened, but here are some things that worry me about the situation.
Unlike younger children, teenagers are capable of understanding some of the complex social forces that cause violence. Talk honestly with your teen about your concerns — whether it's gun control, media violence, or how kids treat each other in school. Ask for their opinions about what caused the shooting.

I love you, and I care about you.
Teens are often prickly around displays of parental affection, but it's important to let them know explicitly — especially during difficult times — that they are loved.

I wonder if you feel like doing something about it?
Encourage kids to respond actively to a tragedy. They can organize a memorial in their school, write letters of sympathy, or actively work for political candidates and causes that promote violence-prevention programs.

Beyond the Conversation
If possible, watch the television news with your kids so that you have a good sense of the information they're getting and how they're responding to a tragedy. Watching with them, reading the same newspapers, and being available to them is a way of helping them feel less isolated as they grapple with violence in the news.

If school violence should occur, find out what your teen's school is doing to help kids cope. Make sure that there are counselors and psychological support staff available.

Finally, take the time to assess your own family and the role of violence in your lives. Are your kids obsessed with violent films and videos? Are they making hate-filled remarks? Are they isolated from school activities? Do they show signs of acting out by getting in physical fights, destroying property, or hurting animals? If so, these are indications that you and your child may need professional help.

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