How To Help Your Teen Through Traumatic Experiences

Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. What is traumatic to one person may not be to another. Thanks to neuro science, we know what the human brain is developmentally likely to effectively process at certain ages and what it isn’t. Typically, the younger a person is, the less likely they are able to process extreme experiences and stimuli. The younger a person is, the more susceptible they are to being strongly affected by traumatic experiences. They’re other factors that play a role as well, such as environment, support system, racism, genetics, etc.

The long term affects of trauma can be largely avoided in some cases through education, mental wellness support, compassion, listening and believing people who have been traumatized, de-stigmatizing mental health as well as continuous study on the topic of trauma.

Recently, in the community I reside, an anti-abortion group has made waves by protesting abortion at high schools, middle schools, community events, and some have even reported they have showed up at an elementary school. The group of course has the right to protest; protesting is a fundamental and protected right in this country and I haven’t heard anyone disputing that fact. The group remains on public property while protesting at schools, however they are displaying large posters with grotesque images of aborted babies, and verbally expressing what is considered ‘hate speech’ to minors.

The group uses megaphones to verbally preach their beliefs and make their protestations known. They also use the megaphones to engage passersby with confrontational hate language such as making inappropriate accusatory, assuming statements about ‘godless’ community members who are ‘murderers’ and ‘pro-abortionist’…to minors.

They wear body cameras and approach passersby attempting to engage them (minors) in conversation that is recorded; which they later edit in their favor and post publicly on their YouTube channel. This is legal here because Wisconsin is a one-party recording state.

They have also been heard making anti-LGBT statements and protesting that LGBT is ‘wrong’…to minors. In addition, they have been heard making anti-muslim comments as well…to minors.

For the fairly small community in which I live, an extremist group such as this coming to town created quite the reaction. But what the group appears to fail to understand is the community is not upset they are protesting, the community is upset about the means of which they are protesting and the inappropriate audience they are targeting with their inappropriate means.

It is clear the community’s reaction to the group was damned from the get-go however, because extremist groups will see any negative reactions as AGAINST their cause and an ‘attack’ on them; therefore accusing the reactors of being ‘liars’, ‘godless’ or in this case ‘pro-abortionists’.

The fact is, the community is not opposed to their anti abortion message. In fact, there are MANY pro-life advocates in this community. The community’s upset is the group’s choice in verbal expression of their messages, grotesque images on their posters, video recording of MINORS, and their choice to target middle and high school children.

My guess is the protesting group is far from unintelligent; they are clearly media savvy and well aware of manipulative tactics and neuro-linguistic programming strategies. The group knows they are more likely to generate engagement with minors because kids are emotional and impulsive and more likely have a reaction. In addition to protesting abortion, it is clear their strategy is to record emotional displays of anger and irritation, edit the footage to suit their extreme message and help them continue to justify their inappropriate means of protesting. When their inappropriate means are brought into question they use their faith as a defense and justification for their behaviors.

For those of you concerned about your children being affected by the protesting group’s posters, hateful verbal barrage, video recording and other inappropriate behaviors…here are a few things you can do to try and avoid potential long-term emotional trauma for your children.

1. Prepare Them

If we know what to expect going into a situation, we can potentially avoid long term trauma. Give your tween/teen the heads up that they may run into this type of extremist protesting while at school. Tell them about the signs and the verbal tricks the group uses to get a reaction from passersby. Alert them to the body cameras, so they are aware if they engage the protestors, they are being recorded.

Please make sure to let your kids know that it is the group’s right to protest; that is a fundamental right in this country. Clarify you are concerned about this specific group targeting minors at schools with signage and verbal expressions that are inappropriate. Maybe you want to communicate that if the group engaged in less traumatic and hateful means of protesting, you wouldn’t even have a problem with them being at the schools.

2. Engage Wisely – empowerment

Part of trauma and it’s long term affects is the feeling of being a victim, the helplessness felt at emotionally significant moments; something being done to us without our consent, something surprising happening without preparedness. We can help our tweens/teens feel less disempowered, less victimized, less helpless if we give them permission to be in control of their own reactions.

In the case of the extreme and inappropriate methods of the protestors, provide your tweens/teens with options to empower themselves to manage the protestors, and give them permission to use those options while being aware of safety concerns:

  1. Avoid eye contact, don’t look at the signs and walk quickly to the school. Listen to music with earbuds while walking.
  2. Walk with friends in a group to and from school and don’t engage the protestors.
  3. Drop off or pick up closer to the front door of the school.
  4. If approached by a protestor verbally repeat “I do not give you permission to use my image on video” over and over until they are safely away from the protestor.
  5. Pretend to be talking on their phone in order to avoid the protestor, or actually talk to your kid on the phone as they walk to or from school.

If you feel your tween/teen will engage the protestors make sure they understand the protestors aren’t there to listen and they most certainly will NOT change their minds. They will only tolerate agreement and will likely use savvy means to draw anyone further into a conversation. Let your tween/teen know they could end up on YouTube in a video edited to reflect the group in a positive light and possibly your tween/teen in a negative one depending upon what they choose to say to the group.

3. Allow Expression of Feelings

Trauma has a much harder time sinking into our psyche and taking root if we are able to tell our story and express our feelings to a supportive, empathetic person. And the sooner the better after a traumatic experience. Telling the story to an empathetic listening ear is exactly what will help avoid potential long-term negative affects from trauma. Telling our story over and over again helps our psyche make sense of the experience and heal from it.

In the case of the protestors, when your tween/teen wants to communicate their experience allow them to do so! Make yourself available to them, it’s very important they are able to share their experience. In fact, ask them to share their experience with you. You can best help them by listening, not lecturing. Offering empathy rather than sympathy. Maintaining calm instead of emotionally reacting to their experience. You can do that later!

Focus on listening, supporting, empathizing and when they are done ask them to identify the emotions they felt through their experience. Make yourself available for them to tell you their story again. Resist ‘fixing’ anything unless necessary or unless they are asking for you to fix something. If you’re worried about future experiences, instead of lecturing, encourage them by sharing how you ‘believe in them’, and ‘have faith’ they know what’s in their best interest.

It may be unfortunate this is happening in our community, but the silver lining is the group is providing wonderful opportunities. They are bringing us together as a community. They are providing opportunities to talk to your tween/teen about many different topics from abortion to protesting. They have given me the opportunity to write a blog post to help parents assist their tweens/teens to prevent long term trauma.

I think it’s fair to say the group has accomplished many positive things for this community…none of which was the group’s original intention. I’d argue their intention was poorly executed, as it was lost in their inappropriate delivery.

If you are local and would like to discuss this matter further please call A Beautiful Journey, LLC for an appointment. If you would like to have myself and my team join a group or an event to talk further about this and/or answer parent questions, contact information can be found on my website.

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