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Help Preteens Handle Tragedy

How to Help Your Teen Handle A Tragic Event

On the evening of September 11, 2001, Nola Van Vugt of Issaquah, Wash., and her preteen daughter, Anna, were driving home. Anna was in her second week at the Seattle Girls School, having a blast and seeing life full of promise. But on this evening of national tragedy, Van Vugt says, "We were driving across Lake Washington, so it was probably a little after 8 p.m. Pacific time, and she said to me, 'It feels like my childhood just came to an end, and nothing will ever be the same again.'"

It was a feeling that most of us had on September 11, but preteenagers may have felt the tragedy's impact the hardest. "Any kind of tragedy shakes the predictability of the world, and preteens are on the cusp of adolescence," says David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont. "Tragedy shakes their sense of ability to trust the world around them."

Of course, what happened on 9/11 rocked the entire world. It was a tragedy felt by millions, and while everyone felt the horrors of the day, it may have touched middle school kids a little more poignantly.

"I really believe it was a defining moment for that generation, more than any other," says Van Vugt. "Although it seemed to me that the high school kids were pretty affected by it also, it really pointed up how vulnerable that middle school age is."

Everyday Tragedies

Most tragedies that adolescents face are not on the same level as 9/11. It is more likely that the tragedy will be personal, such as the death of a grandparent. To a preteen, who is going through the hormonal and emotional changes that make these years rough to begin with, a tragic event might feel like the sky is falling down around them.

In my own family, both of my kids had to deal with their share of tragedy during their middle school years. When my daughter was in eighth grade, a family friend died suddenly at the age of 39. My son, then 8, was saddened but not stricken. My daughter began to worry that I, too, would die, or that other friends would die. She began to shrink away from the adults in her life, detaching herself so she wouldn't feel the same hurt again.

A few years later, my son was a middle school student when 9/11 happened. If that didn't sting him enough, his uncle was sent to the Middle East with his military unit. You could see my son begin to carry the weight of the world on his young shoulders.

"Many times, preteens, who are in the midst of growing their cognitive skills, building their identity and socialization skills, decide that the world is a malevolent place in the midst or the aftermath of a tragedy," says Psychologist Nancy Irwin. "Speedy intervention can offset this mindset, and talking out their fears can help enormously."

Intervention is a solution that Debbie Mandel of Lawrence, N.Y., found to help her preteen daughter cope with both her grandmother's Alzheimer's disease and death. "When my mother passed away, actually of lung cancer at the end, I would lie in bed with my daughter and discuss school, friends and the concerns of her daily world," says Mandel. "My daughter needed me physically and emotionally. Truthfully, she helped me hold it together for her sake!"

What to Expect

After a tragedy, Fassler says it's natural for kids to regress. However, the regression should be temporary. Parents need to watch out for a drop back in development, withdrawal or a reluctance to try new things. "Preteens who have experienced other trauma in their life tend to be even more vulnerable," says Fassler.

In the 18 months before 9/11, my son had to deal with the long-expected death of his great-grandfather and the very sudden death of his grandfather. Both personal losses helped him to feel the aftermath of 9/11 much harder than many of his peers. He had empathy for losing a loved one, which was something that many of his friends had never experienced.

Preteens who have been subjected to multiple tragedies can be more susceptible for depression or anxiety. "Don't be afraid to get help for your preteen if they don't seem to be recovering from a tragic event," Fassler says.

Give them time to grieve, but after a few months, they should show signs of returning back to normal. If they are still withdrawn or seem to be regressing, it is time to call for professional help.

What You Can Do

How can parents best help their preteen through a tragedy? Fassler gives the following tips:

  • Be open, honest and available to talk to kids. They need accurate information.
  • Create as much predictability and stability as possible. Keep to routines, school and familiar people.
  • Let kids adjust and adapt in their own way. "Kids do it differently from adults," he says. Kids grieve and deal with things differently than adults. Parents should follow their preteen's lead and react accordingly.
  • Keep an eye out for complaints of physical ailments, as preteens will often express stress this way.
  • Especially keep an eye on preteens who don't have any reaction. "They are the ones to really worry about, because they are keeping everything bottled up," says Fassler.

Irwin reminds parents that it is important not to let preteens use the tragedy as an excuse to slack off. "Occasionally, we are victims of circumstances beyond our control," she says. "If we stay victims after that, we are yielding our control."

When tragedy strikes, no one's life is ever quite the same. Adults and many teens have already been jaded by tragic events; a preteenager's innocence and trust in the world may be shattered. Van Vugt says that her daughter still seems emotionally detached, several years after her first blow with tragedy.

In the wake of any type of tragedy, just being there for your preteen is the best you can do. Mandel and her daughter can certainly attest to that. "I made a point of doing fun, creative things with her, life-affirming things, to counteract the tragedy and restore the balance of the day," she says.

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