Just two days have passed since the heartbreaking events in a small town in New England, just miles from where I grew up as a child and where high school friends are now raising their families. Yet, one doesn't need to live near the scene of such a tragic, unthinkable act of violence to confront the disbelief and anguish facing the children and families in that community, for we can all imagine ourselves in the village of Sandy Hook, CT. We all remember what it was like to be a small child in a bustling classroom full of color and wonder.
My daughters, Josie (12) and Sophie (15) knew about the event in Connecticut before they even got off the school bus on Friday. Growing up today in a hyperconnected, play-by-play world offers little chance for reflection, ponder or protection of a harsh reality. Facebook updates, tweets from Justin Bieber and Rianna, and Instagrams of affirmations sped through the social networks like wildfire, before parents could even absorb the news and figure out how to discuss it at home.
My seventh grader, stealing some moments on my iPad to check her Instagram profile on Friday evening flashed before me an image of a (supposed) child’s note to parents while in a school lockdown along the lines of “I’m sorry I was a bad kid.” “He was shot minutes later!” she exclaimed. Ooookay, then. Opportunity for discussion about misinformation, why she took my iPad without asking, and reviewing again which friends she’s connected to, I thought. (Best to find a quiet moment over the weekend for that.) Not minutes later my teen came home from a friend’s house, walked past us parents who muted the TV. “I hate this story,” she announced as she stomped off to bed. Yah, me too.
Earlier in the week Sophie had babysat for two little girls, who wanted extra hugs before bedtime; it was a moment she delighted in (they are about the same ages as my girls once were, pictured here). Part of growing up is to realize you have the privilege and power to comfort and care as a basic human condition. This is especially so when it happens outside the family. The world becomes bigger and you discover that you can make a difference in other people's lives, even for a moment.
While parents regroup and muster up inner calm to engage with their kids, teenagers are already digesting and coping with the news online and offline. The hard part to witness is how my teens are beginning to believe “This happens all the time now.” Now, as in their short lifetime. That’s how I understood it from my Josie.
Last year, I received a text from Sophie, an ‘I love you’ in the middle of the day. I thought it was a joke, given that we were in a phase where I was just too uncool to relate to. It turned out the middle school was presenting Rachel’s Challenge to the 8th graders, a nonprofit organization created after the death of Rachel Joy Scott, a teen victim in the Columbine school shooting. The mission is to educate students about bullying, create safe environments for students, and to initiate a chain reaction of kindness. Sadly, since that school presentation a number of tragic public events have occurred; the most recent being the July shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on opening night of The Dark Knight. The anticipation of going to an opening night has for many teens (and parents) been stripped away as one of the joys of adolescence. Who could trust anyone dressed in character now?
Of course, based on sheer risk facts and numbers, these mass shootings are rare events. Yet, they punch a deep wound in the national psyche and foster an unrelenting low-grade anxiety in our homes and schools. Teens turn to their friends, though, for support and comfort. Parents can be there for them, guide them, even unplug the media at home as best as possible, but it’s friends they turn to. It’s with friends that teens can talk to or not. No heavy discussion. They just can be.
Yet, when things are too big and too awful to fully comprehend, what can friends do to support each other? Here are some things I’ve observed from the teens in my life and those I’ve come to know in my practice:
- Do nothing. Just hang out and find comfort in the presence of trusted friends. Practicing mindfulness – or being fully present in the moment without judging yourself or others. This is a skill to be nurtured by one self and among others.
- Do something small. Reach out; engage in an act of kindness; show your friends and family that you care. Bake brownies or do a chore you would otherwise avoid.
- Do something big. Step outside of yourself and be courageous… something that might make you a bit uncomfortable even if you know it's the right thing to do. Say hello to someone you typically might not pay attention to or reach out to someone who is otherwise invisible. Stand up to someone who’s ridiculing or bullying another person. Or, stand up for yourself.
- Practice Gratitude. Everyday brings gifts if you pay attention to the wonder of your world. Even in dark times there are moments of joy, delight, hope, and serendipity in nature, at home, or with friends.
- Avoid comparing yourself. This is really hard to practice in a world of judgment and perfectionism. Many of us measure self-worth through our perceptions and culutral expectations, i.e., what you believe others might think about you – like comparing what we look like, our body image, what we have or don’t have, who deserves more or less, or feeling like you have no right to complain or be sad compared to others.These are the seeds of self-doubt and shame. It takes daily practice to be aware of and fend off unhelpful social comparisons.
- Show compassion. First, have empathy for yourself. Know that you are worthy, loveable, and irreplaceable. Then, sprinkle that kindness and compassion onto others. How do you show empathy for yourself? For others?
- Create. Draw, paint, write, sing, dance, build. Use your imagination to express your feelings, thoughts, desires and hopes. Being creative allows you to immerse yourselves in the present moment and in the beauty and ingenuity of your mind to imagine new ideas, things and possibilities.
- Volunteer. Be involved in something that goes beyond just clocking in community service hours in order to graduate. Don’t do the minimal, but try to stretch yourself a bit farther. You’ll likely find that you get more out of volunteering than you thought.
- Be hopeful. While the world will bring sorrow and joy, disappointment and triumph, all of us will experience conflict, grief, pain and loss. It’s how we learn to cope with challenges that enable us to have the grit to soldier on. Hope allows us to imagine something better or wonderful, to set goals and persevere. What do you hope for yourself? For others?
- Stay connected. Human beings are wired for connection and belonging. It’s when those connections breakdown or disappear that suffering ensues. Ask for help; offer help. Reach out your hand. We’re all in this together …in one way or another.
And for parents? Can you model for your child these ways of being in the world? After all, they soak in everything about you, no matter what you say. Be the person you want your kids to be.
[These 10 tips are also published for teens on www.bodimojo.com/blog]
Resources for Parents: