Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Scary Thing Happened On The Way To School Today

Just finished watching the evening news. Tonight's lead story was about a teenager from a suburb of Ohio who opened fire on the students in his high school, killing one student and injuring 3 others. Video at the school showed terrified students and terrified parents, holding on to each other for dear life, thankful that they could do that, and were not among those who had been shot.

Opened my e-mail today with a call for help from a mom whose 17 yr old daughter had been in a car accident on the way to school just before vacation. Fault has yet to be determined and her daughter has a fuzzy recollection of the accident, but there seems to be some disagreement about who was at fault. Her daughter is a cautious driver, who takes her driving responsibilities very seriously, and is quite traumatized by this accident. She can't sleep, she is afraid to drive, and keeps replaying the event as best she can remember it, distracting her from school, SAT's and life. Mom has now found out that in fact she may have been at fault, at least according to the police officers, and is terrified to tell her daughter, worried that her guilt will send her over the edge. Not only was she injured, but the driver of the other car as well. I don't think seriously, but the guilt will be overwhelming for this girl.

Two very different stories, but trauma is trauma. And probably at some point in your teen's life they will be faced with some of their own. Something that feels out of their control, and that makes them feel out of control. Remember that the most highly activated part of the teen brain is the Amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. So whenever your teen experiences an event with high emotional content, the intensity can be almost unbearable. This does not mean you avoid, protect, or minimize hoping it will all get better. Best to meet the crisis head on.

 This mom writes: "How can we salvage her confidence and spare her from the shame and fear and humiliation knowing that it is possible that she did indeed run a red light? That she did unknowingly cause injury to another party whom she believes is the one who injured her? How can this possibly become a positive life lesson? All I can envision right now is total devastation happening on top of total devastation. All this happening at the WORST possible time. With her SATs around the corner, this is a distraction that could have long term consequences well beyond her driving psyche being damaged."

When something bad happens to our kids, we want to make it "all better." So instinctively, we tell them it's OK, your OK, it's only a car, it was just an accident. If we could just hold them on our lap and kiss their fear away we would. But honestly, it wouldn't help much. Better to play it all out by asking questions like: "Tell me what you are most afraid of now?" When the fears are on the table, it gets them out of their head, and in a place where they can begin to gain some control. Being part of the real world, and experiencing the consequences is not a bad thing. That is how we learn. Helping teens to develop an action plan to address their feelings and their behavior puts an out of control situation back in their hands.

First thing first. Honesty. Tell your teen the whole story, they can handle it. In this situation lay out the facts, not with fear in your voice but in a calm neutral tone. 'OK here is what we are dealing with, lets figure it out together. Invite them into the process of problem solving, do not do things behind closed doors, with private conversations with other adults. Your teen needs to know you continue to have confidence in him/her, and their ability to take care of business.

Understand their fear: " I get that you feel changed forever. I'm guessing you are worried you may never be able to drive safely again, is that right? I get that you keep replaying it over and over in your head, if only, and it is driving you crazy. Is that right?  It's normal to be thinking and feeling these things, it was a scary and terrifying thing. Let's come up with some strategies to help."

If they are having trouble sleeping, then come up with a sleep strategy, something to distract them from their thoughts. Maybe watching a movie on their laptop till they fall asleep. Have a time every day where you check in: On a scale of 1-10 how are you feeling today. Sometimes it helps for teens to see that in fact they are feeling better, but haven't noticed, this helps them do that.

If there is a legal issue, take them through the process step by step, so they know what to expect and what will be expected of them. Do not protect them from the reality of the situation. Teens are more resilient than you think, and when you include them from the get go, they feel your confidence in them.

Help them with strategies for managing their life. Perhaps doing homework in their room allows them to get too much into their head. Head out to a Starbucks or the local library for a study session, to help them focus, saying : 'I get you are thinking about this all the time, I think changing the scenery will help you focus on what you need to do.

Get them back in the car again, but start slowly. Maybe just have them drive to the corner store for milk, or to get gas in your car.  Go with them, if that feels better.

Share times in your life when you faced a crisis. Rather than telling them it will get better, share an experience when you too felt changed forever, and how over time you were OK. Teens truly believe that these traumas and crisis will never pass. Whether it is a break up with a boy/girlfriend, or a rejection from the team/school play/college they wanted to do/go to so badly. The feelings are profound because it is the first time in their life that they have felt such intense feelings, and they truly feel like they will never go away. Parents often get caught up in their teen's worry that they will be damaged/effected forever. But just look at your own life, you know it gets better, cause it did for you, and it will for them. It just takes time.


  1. Great article! It reminded me of advice I received from a wise cousin--our job as parents is to prepare our child for the road, not the road for our child.