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5 Ways to Help Your Teen Navigate Traumatic Events

How to lead the conversation and create a safe zone at home

Katey Nicolai headshot

Published on: July 28, 2020

teenage girl sitting on the floor in the dark

Editor's note: This article was originally published by UpLift.

Teens in the United States are routinely exposed to violence and other potentially traumatic events. Four out of 10 adolescents have directly witnessed violence, 17 percent have been physically assaulted, and 8 percent have experienced sexual assault, and these rates are even higher for teens from marginalized or oppressed groups. 

Experiencing trauma affects everyone differently.  Most people who experience a traumatic event don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but teens are at a higher risk. It is estimated that 75 percent of children who experience a school shooting and 90 percent of children who are sexually abused develop PSTD. Experiencing trauma can interfere with a teen’s cognitive and social development and increase academic problems, making them more likely to engage in risky behavior such as using substances. While violence portrayed in the news and on social media has been a concern for some time, the recent increase in the sharing of videos containing police brutality, school violence and hate crimes has amplified the concerns for parents.

Here are five practical tips that you can use to talk to your teen about violence and trauma.

Create an atmosphere of safety and trust.

Creating a safe place for emotions will allow your teen to share if they are feeling confused or overwhelmed. Listen first and ask questions second.  Remember that it may take several conversations to establish a connection, so your best bet is to remain calm and consistent. Try to not let your own worries direct the conversation; instead, create space for the free expression of emotions they are experiencing. Remind them frequently that you are a trusted resource they can rely on, no matter what.

Let them lead the conversation.

Invite your teen to share their thoughts and feelings about what they have been experiencing, reading or viewing in the news and online. Here are some examples of how to get the conversation started:

  • "I was reading in the news about the protests today. I'm curious what you think about what's going on?"
  • "Have you talked to any of your friends about what happened?”
  • "What's happening at school sounds like a lot to handle. I'm a listening ear if you would like to talk."

Create a safe zone at home.

Creating a home-based environment of supportive safety where your teen can find acceptance and consistency is essential. 

Provide reassurance that you are learning together.

It is important for teens and young adults to hear that we don’t have all the answers but are open to learning and understanding different perspectives. Learning together and discussing these topics as a family creates safety and connection, which are both antidotes to trauma.  

Know when to seek additional support.

Finding an experienced clinician who specializes in adolescent mental health can be a huge help in navigating the complex process of resolving trauma. Today, new options such as teletherapy are emerging to support teens and young adults regardless of geographic location.  

Additional resources:

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