Understanding and Talking about Current Events and Trauma with Youth
Last updated: December 20, 2021, at 11:48 a.m. PT
Originally published: December 20, 2021, at 11:44 a.m. PT
Recent high profile events involving shootings, marches on Capitol Hill by white supremacists, or violence against protestors and people of color have retraumatized many in our communities and resurfaced a national conversation of safety, public policy, and institutional and structural racism in the legal and political systems. These recent events have left our children asking if they are safe at school, safe in the streets, or safe at home, and raises questions about parenting, youth support, hate, historical racial trauma, and current day systemic issues deeply rooted inequities in our community and across our nation.
After a recent school shooting in Michigan, the deadliest in 2021, four students were killed, seven others were injured, and a 15-year-old was charged as a terrorist for alleging carrying out the attack. Days later, white supremacist in mask and shield marched through our nation’s capitol preaching that non-whites are not welcome here. Last month, in three recent cases, juries delivered verdicts in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in connection with the deaths and injuries of demonstrators in Kenosha, Wisconsin; the trial of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan in connection with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery; and a civil case against a consortium of white nationalists for their involvement in inciting violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The Y is committed to serving youth; when stories like these grip the national headlines, it also impacts and affects the youngest among us. Our youth witness these events in real time, whether we realize or acknowledge it or not. Some youth are left questioning why such things continue to happen, others struggle to process or confront repressed trauma that is resurfaced, and still others struggle to make sense of traumatic current events. In these moments, listening and being present with them as they process their feelings is critical, but first we, ourselves, must face the reality of these events, and unpack the underlying issues they represent, so that we can be there for our young people.
All of these cases have brought up old emotions, as a community the past few weeks have been challenging for some. Youth have expressed sorrow and grief, but also renewed anger and calls for accountability regarding gun violence. Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) experience re-traumatization each time the legal and political systems of our country take actions perceived to give refuge to institutional and structural racism. We at the Y find it critical to open up space to listen to those who are struggling to process these events, are re-experiencing trauma, face the effects of navigating difficult conversations and emotions, and share feelings of fear, anxiety, anger and internalized oppression.
In the days and weeks following these verdicts, we have also heard from parents who questioned how to explain these events to their children and gain a better understanding of what they might ask, and what they might have already heard in passing.
Explaining difficult stories in the news to our youngest can be daunting, but it’s also crucial to provide them with the context and understanding they need to make sense of current events, and signal to kids that the door is open if they want to talk. At the Y, we have a myriad of purpose-driven programs serving youth led by industry leaders and a well-trained and experienced staff who have developed methods to help youth navigate and process shock and confusion. The common advice is that information is out there, and youth are searching for ways to understand it better.
Talking to Youth about Difficult Topics
The Y’s Child Development Program Directors, our Social Impact Center, and Equity and Justice Center of Excellence has some helpful tips on how to get started in talking to kids about trauma.
Knowing how to talk to and support your child during and after trauma and traumatic events is an important step in the recovery and healing process. Support for your child can help to make them feel safe, help to guide them to understanding, and help ease their fears and anxiety.
Below are tips on supporting your children after traumatic events:
- Start the Conversation – Just because it is not talked about in the home does not mean they are not thinking about it or hearing about it elsewhere. Children may feel uncomfortable starting the conversation because they don’t want to upset you or know they have different feelings than you do about the subject.
- Make Your Child Feel Safe – Make sure you talk to your child in a safe, calm environment, somewhere they feel comfortable to open up and talk without judgment of others.
- Know the Signs – While different ages may react and show signs of trauma in different ways, below are some signs that may appear in children of all ages:
- Do not feel safe
- Sleep difficulties
- Behavior problems
- Social Withdrawal
- Listen – It is important to hear your child and respect their thoughts and feelings. They may have questions, or want help understanding the event. Make sure you hear them out and help answer questions the best you know how. Stay calm and be honest, it’s ok to say I don’t know.
For more tips on what to expect, what to do, and what to look out for and more on age-specific information, visit the Child Mind Institute to find a detailed guide to help caregivers support children after a traumatic event.
Reflection and Process
Talking about mass shooting, violence, hate groups and racism in institutions and systems is a challenge, but in the spirit of learning and healing, we encourage you to take the time to engage in your own learning, support and lift up youth and BIPOC voices, listen and process, for yourself and with those in your circle who matter most. Exercise self-care and make space for yourselves to heal, to support one another, and to help each other learn and grow.
These recent incidents and court cases are not the end of the story, independent of the final verdict or outcome. The underlying systemic issues which brought these events to the national spotlight still exist. We at the Y, our leadership, staff, volunteers and community partners remain committed to the goal of continuing to advance equity and justice for all, particularly for youth and those furthest from opportunity.
Let’s stay committed to building an equitable world where systems are redesigned and center love, compassion, respect and where each person thrives, and create spaces where every human being thrives. A world where hate cannot win; a world where each person can thrive – especially the young – and realize their full potential in spirit, mind, and body; and a world where young people of all backgrounds can realize a future of belonging and affirmation.
It is up to all of us to support and listen to one another, and work together to make our community a safer, more welcoming place for all.