Ask an expert: Supporting teens to cope with distressing world events

It’s normal for distressing events such as acts of war, terrorism or violence to have an impact on your whole family’s wellbeing – even when the event happened overseas or outside of your community. If you’re unsure about how best to help your teen through this when you’re having a difficult time coping yourself, you’re not alone. 

We asked clinical psychologist Nasalifya Namwinga for her advice on how parents and carers can support both themselves and their teen to cope following a distressing event.

Click here to download a transcript of this video.

Nasalifya’s tips for supporting your family to cope with distressing news and events

Model help-seeking behaviours

Parenting can be hard at the best of times, but when you’re dealing with your own distress it might feel particularly tough. To support your teen with their wellbeing, you first have to help yourself with yours. Your behaviour and response acts as a guide for your teen. When you treat yourself with kindness and prioritise your wellbeing, this shows your teen that caring for their own mental health has value. 

As parents and carers, we model how young people are going to respond.

Nasalifya suggests the following three steps to model help-seeking behaviours to your teen: 

  1. Validate your own emotions. The way you’re feeling is normal, and it’s okay to feel that way. Being vocal about your emotions, in a kind and validating way, shows your teen that it’s safe to share their own emotions. 

  2. Seek the support you need. We can’t always work through things alone. Chatting to a professional can help shift a lot of stress off your shoulders. It also shows your teen the importance of reaching out for support when and if they need it. Head here to find which support option is best for you.

  3. Create a safe space for your teen to share their emotions. Sit down with your teen and ask them directly how they are feeling. Offer to help them access additional support options if they are struggling to cope. Because you’ve shown the way, they are likely to feel more comfortable with being honest and to accept professional help!

Help them to engage safely with graphic online content

Social media allows teens to access stories they may not have been exposed to before and to create connections across the globe. While this has many positives, it also means that teens are likely to witness distressing events unfolding in real time. 

The scary reality is that we cannot protect young people from everything. Sometimes their engagement with the things going on in the world actually makes them better global citizens.

Attempting to ban or block your teen from viewing content of a distressing event might make them feel they are being kept from engaging with an issue they care about. It may also prevent them from coming to you for support if and when they see something graphic online. Nasalifya suggests that while you may not be able to stop your teen from engaging with graphic content, there are ways to help them engage safely with it.

You can do this by fostering honest conversations with your teen about what they are seeing online, asking them direct questions, encouraging them to problem solve, and by helping them to identify what is ‘good and helpful’ content and what isn’t.

Click here for more info about helping your teen deal with graphic content.

Understand why they are engaging with the issue

A distressing global event is often linked to a wider issue. Your teen may be invested in that issue, which is causing them to consume more graphic content or to feel distressed more regularly than their peers.

The first step in understanding your teen’s behaviour is to recognise their ‘why’. By asking your teen why they are interested in this topic, you may find common ground and be able to create fair boundaries around content consumption. Your curiosity can also help your teen to feel they are being heard and respected.

As Nasalifya suggests, the reason for their interest might be very different from what you were expecting or from other young people’s reasons. Some common reasons young people engage with global issues are:

  • to connect with their peers

  • to reduce feelings of guilt or helplessness around the issue

  • to express empathy and compassion

  • to bring about positive change.

Learn more about teen activism and why young people protest.

Decide how you’ll deal with distressing events and social issues as a family

Seeing your teen increase their engagement with social issues following a distressing event can be worrying. They may ignore their own wellbeing during this time, which can lead to poor sleep, irritability, stress, and other physical and mental health concerns. 

Engaging safely with social issues is all about finding a balance between your advocacy work, your life responsibilities and your wellbeing. Coming together as a family to respond to an issue gives young people an outlet to funnel their care and passion into. It also allows you as a parent to set boundaries around when your teen needs to focus on their health and other responsibilities.

Nasalifya recommends two ways to start approaching issues as a family: 

  1. Position your teen as the family expert on the issue. Give them a space to share their knowledge and be heard by others. This shows them that you respect their need to speak on this issue. 

  2. Create a family advocacy plan. This can look like reaching out to local advocacy groups, volunteering, signing petitions, sharing information online, or connecting directly with people who need support.

Find common ground with your teen

As a parent or carer, your response is informed by all of your life experiences, so a distressing event could feel very personal to you. But you’ve led a different life to your teen, so it’s no surprise if your opinions and emotional responses are different from theirs too. 

If you’re struggling to see eye-to-eye about this event or news with your teenager, remember that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Even if you feel your teen doesn’t have as deep an understanding of the issue as you do, both of your responses are valid in their own right. 

Nasalifya recommends talking openly with your teen to share your differing perspectives. You may come to understand each other better from the chat, which will improve your communication overall. 

Head here for more advice on how to make conflict constructive.

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