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Disarming the Trigger of School Shootings for Bereaved Siblings

Providing an environment where teens can express themselves and ask questions without fear of judgment or reproach can help them develop the confidence to come forward and discuss their feelings, especially if they are asked to.
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The children of the Greatest Generation were taught to "drop and roll" in the event of a nuclear attack. Today, their great-grandchildren learn the FBI-sanctioned "run, hide, fight" tactic for the most triggering threat in today's society, that of an active shooter.

Unfortunately, there's more to staying safe than going through the motions. The incessant media coverage of school shootings has become increasingly accessible for the tech-savvy kids of the social media era.

For over ten years I have worked as a psychology professor and social work clinician with a specialty in addressing adolescent sibling bereavement. Out of my work with and concern for teenagers who have lost a sibling and their retriggering of trauma brought on by news of a new school shooting and the ensuing media coverage that we all know will take place, I offer a few of the tips I have found that help children and their families to grieve the loss of a sibling, that might help all children better cope.

Ultimately, when our teens see the news of a school shooter taking innocent lives, they are likely to reflect upon their own losses and rely on their own unique strategies of resilience. The following suggestions are therefore written with this in mind, and are likely to really help teens cope with the grieving process:

Seek Peers Before Professionals

Teens who have lost a sibling may already be feeling isolated from their friends as they may take on a sense of feeling "different" or "changed" by their loss. In the wake of a school shooting, teens should be encouraged to continue to talk to their core group of friends about their reactions to the shootings. Strength for adolescents is found in sharing common experiences and responses, and peer support is invaluable. Therefore, rather than keeping a bereaved teen sibling home from school if she appears especially upset by recent shootings, it would be more helpful to allow her to continue with normal routines in school surrounded by friends, with the understanding that a caregiver should be on the lookout for warning signs that the teen isn't feeling further triggered or isolated. This suggestion is also provided with the expectation that a teenager may need to seek counseling or other emotional supportive resources from adults.

On that note, it can often be hard to tell when an adolescent might need more than a supportive listening ear and isn't just being a "typical moody teen." Some warning signs to look out for include teens who are isolating themselves from friends and avoiding social activities, as well as those who appear to be watching and re-watching footage of school shootings or other disturbing events. Additionally, persistent depression, nightmares, and blunted affect that interfere with a teen's daily functioning at school, in the family, or with friends, warrant discussion with a mental health provider.

Rely on Rituals -- and Start New Ones

I was once part of an intervention program at the University of Maryland that provided a safe place for urban families who had experienced trauma to learn how to connect, or reconnect, with each other in the aftermath of such horrific experiences as home invasions, gang violence, murder, and more. One of the most effective portions of the treatment protocol involved simply creating a space for families to eat dinner together each week over the ten-week program, providing conversation prompts and other methods that would enhance the bond between parents and children throughout the meal. For these families, implementing the ritual of a predictable, routine family meal where all members were heard and participated in discourse, had extreme value in promoting the types of bonds that are suggested to be protective factors in promoting resiliency in the face of hardship. Family dinner is just one example of a ritual that is easy to implement and maintain on a regular basis.

It's important for teens to maintain a sense of routine and normalcy in the wake of bereavement, and the same should be true in triggering situations. Rituals as predictable as attending classes and extracurricular activities, evenings with friends and yes, family dinners, provide a sense of structure, predictability, and safety. School shootings can trigger a sense of a loss of control in a bereaved teen sibling, who may even have adapted some new, comforting rituals in the wake of personal loss. It might be helpful to add rituals acknowledging the seriousness of a school shooting to a bereaved teen sibling's arsenal, such as writing a nightly poem about the emotions it brings up, or lighting a candle in vigil of students that have died. A continuing reliance on personal rituals and establishing new ones may help reestablish a sense of control in a teen whose thoughts may be spiraling as a result of news coverage on school shootings.

Be a Reliable Media Model

Because today's adolescents have nearly unlimited access to the internet even when it is restricted in their own homes, it's helpful for caregivers and loved ones to model how to search for information and begin an open discussion of having restraint when it comes to "click-bait" that may take a teen to a site he or she isn't ready to see. Additionally, knowing where teens are getting their information from is valuable in starting discussions that can dispel misconceptions about school shootings and shooters. For example, a teen may find "evidence" that all school shooters are mentally ill, and it would be helpful to discuss the research behind this assumption and engage in a conversation where a teen feels heard, empowered, and comes away with an appreciation of the intricacies of the situation instead of jumping to conclusions and categorizing the mentally ill as dangerous. Asking questions about where teens are getting their online information and what they're learning, and coming from a place of curiosity, not judgment, is a great place to start.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Furthermore, not only is it important to begin with curiosity, but to ask teens open-ended questions and allow them to express their feelings to you in their own words. As concerned caregivers, it can be easy to place our own interpretations of what bereaved teen siblings "must" be going through instead of asking, "How are you doing?" Children of all ages are notoriously resilient in how they cope with loss, and have much to teach us about grief, too. Instead of asking a question that implies a teen is being triggered, like the following: "Have you seen the school shootings on the news recently? Do you find it triggering to see so much coverage like this?" try starting with the open-ended question: "How do you feel about the news coverage of school shootings?" This allows a teen to provide her point of view and leaves the power in her hands as to whether to bring up grief symptoms or not.

Providing an environment where teens can express themselves and ask questions without fear of judgment or reproach can help them develop the confidence to come forward and discuss their feelings, especially if they are asked to. Teens are a passionate and vocal group on the whole, and bereaved teen siblings are no exception. Under the guidance and nurturing of responsible and engaged caregivers and loved ones, a bereaved teen sibling's response to school shootings can be monitored and managed in a safe and productive way. Ultimately, when triggered by intense media coverage of disturbing events, you can serve as protection from the impact or better yet, disarm the trigger altogether.

Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, DSW, is assistant professor and department chair of psychology at Bryn Athyn College. Over the course of her career, she has served as a hospital administrator, mental health clinician, academic advisor, family-informed trauma treatment therapist, and clinical oncology social worker to both adult and pediatric populations. Her book Grieving for the Sibling You Lost (September 2015) is available via New Harbinger Publications.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.