Mental Health

Teaching Teens to Handle Tragedies Before They Happen

June 14, 2016

As a teenager, I experienced two of America’s most shocking tragedies: Columbine and 9/11. When those events happened, everything stopped. In high school, teachers took a break from their lesson plans and we made paper chains to send to the students affected by the tragedy. In college, classes were cancelled and we gathered together at a candlelight vigil to pray and sit in stunned silence. And then, just as quickly as everything stopped, it all started right back up again. Classes resumed and students were expected to move on, but many students had to do so without the tools and coping strategies they needed.

Today, tragedy seems to strike on a daily basis. It doesn’t just come in the form of the mass shootings that make the national news. It also comes in the form of car accidents, suicides, cancer, and other events that cause students to lose one or more of their peers. When tragedy strikes, we often look to comfort the friends and family members of the victims first. However, even students who didn’t know the people who died can be affected by these tragedies. Rather than letting students flounder in these moments, schools must take time to ensure students are prepared to handle them should they happen.

Learn How to Recognize and Express Emotions

How many times have you asked a teenager what’s wrong only to get a “Nothing, I’m fine,” in response? Sometimes this response is just a natural teenage response. Other times, it’s masking bigger problems. In preschool and kindergarten, kids are taught to recognize their emotions. They have no trouble announcing, “I’m mad!” or “I’m sad.” However, those emotions become much more complex as they get older and, by the time their teenagers, they may not immediately recognize that they’re sad or mad.

Schools and parents should take time to teach teens about emotional intelligence and encourage teens to express their emotions in healthy ways. This can be incorporated into the regular classroom through journal prompts or through team building activities during homeroom. Guidance counselors or individual teachers may also set up a mailbox or e-mail address where students can write them notes letting them know they need to talk or asking for help in a particular areas. Teachers, parents, and other adults involved in teens’ lives can also serve as role models, sharing their own emotions, modeling healthy ways of dealing with those emotions.

Provide a Safe and Honest Place to Talk

When it comes to expressing emotions or sharing their problems, teens need to feel like they have somewhere to go. The office of an over-worked guidance counselor, who is responsible for hundreds of students and may not even know all of those students by name, isn’t always the best option. Teachers who have a stronger connection with particular students should take time to let the students know they are available to talk whenever they need help. Schools may also implement more official programs, such as assigning each student a teacher mentor, starting a club where students can meet regularly to talk about things that are bothering them, or by bringing in community volunteers to support and interact with small groups of students on a regular basis.

Build a Support Network

Part of the problem teens have is that when something goes wrong, they don’t know where to turn. Even teens with a large group of friends may wonder, “Will my friends think I’m weird or leave me if they know I’m feeling this way?” Schools can remedy this problem by giving teens someone to turn to. A teen's support network may inclde:

  • Teachers
  • Guidance counselors
  • Adult mentors
  • Friends
  • Parents
  • Other family members

The key is getting teens to recognize those who are part of their support network and encouraging them to rely on these people when  they need support. Schools may provide support networks for teens through homerooms or mentoring groups where they regularly engage in team-building activities and take time to get to know one another. It may be done through teachers and community volunteers who regularly monitor a teen’s progress in school and take the time to just stop and talk, letting the teen know that they are available to talk or offer assistance whenever it is needed.

Teachers who are part of these programs shouldn’t just think of them as “one more thing I have to do,” but rather embrace them as an opportunity to truly make a difference in a teens’ life. If teachers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, consider establishing peer mentors, where older students mentor younger students, or peer-to-peer support groups where students are grouped together and meet regularly to talk. Most of all, schools can work to build an environment of compassion, where teens are encouraged to regularly let their peers know that they care about them.

Learn to Recognize and Acknowledge Signs of Trouble

Teens must also be taught to recognize signs of trouble, both in themselves and in their peers. This may be as simple as putting up posters in the hallway to introduce teens to signs of depression and other mental health issues, and encouraging them to talk to an adult if they notice these signs in themselves or others.  Schools may also teach teens about the CLUES method for helping friends they suspect may be in trouble. With the CLUES method, teens are taught to:

  • Connect
  • Listen
  • Understand
  • Express concern
  • Seek help

Schools must stress to teens and teachers that it’s better to play it safe. If they suspect something is wrong, they should reach out to the student and listen to what they have to say. It shouldn’t be done in a confrontational manner or in a way that will make the student feel incredibly uncomfortable. Rather, it can simply be a friend asking, “How’s it going?” or “Want to go grab a cup of coffee after school?”

Develop Self-Care Strategies

When you’ve had a particularly rough day, what do you do? Maybe you pour a glass of wine and sit down in front of the TV to watch some mindless reality show. Perhaps you head to your favorite park to spend a few moments in the quiet of nature. Maybe you put in your headphones and turn up your favorite song. Finding a way to decompress is an important part of self-care. Teachers, guidance counselors, and other adults who work with teens can help teens learn to recognize and adopt their own methods to help them decompress. Things teens may use to decompress include:

  • Meditation and visualization
  • Singing along to music
  • Watching funny videos online
  • Coloring a picture
  • Playing a video game
  • Watching a favorite movie
  • Going shopping at the mall
  • Heading to the beach
  • Doing something fun with friends
  • Playing a sport for fun
  • Visiting with a family member

Along with identifying ways to reduce stress, adults should also stress the importance of physical habits such as getting enough sleep at night, regularly eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, and engaging in physical activity. These may seem like common sense, but often when people are stressed or depressed, they’re the activities that get neglected.

The key to all of these methods is to start implementing them before tragedy happens. That way, when it does, teens aren’t left not knowing where to turn, who to talk to, or how to channel their emotions. They may be sad, in shock, or depressed, but they’ll have a network of people and a wealth of strategies at the ready to support them through the difficult time.

Despite all of the standards and objectives schools must teach, their number one priority should be the health and well-being of their students. Because, when students are not mentally and emotionally healthy, they’re less likely to be engaged in the learning process.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Student Wellness
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