Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Key to Helping Teens Cope With Traumatic Events: Connection

Whether a teen is a target or witness of terrorism, has suffered from cyberbullying, date rape, gay bashing or death of a friend, teens are often faced with traumatic events.

 The Meaning of Traumatic Events

People of any age who are assaulted by a traumatic event, face something that is beyond their capacity to cope. They face something that threatens their life, or the life of a loved one and induces feelings of fear, terror and helplessness. They face something that destroys their assumptions about the world, people and even God- as it was known.

 The Importance of Connection

Key to helping anyone cope with the insult and assault of a traumatic event is connection. Connection with others, particularly known networks of support like family or friends offer initial safety and facilitate coping and healing.

For teens who have suffered a traumatic event, connection is even more important; because for teens, connection is both crucial and complicated.

In a sense, what makes coping with traumatic events so difficult for teens is that traumatic events catch teens between connections.

  • Developmentally the teen years involve the gradual movement from the close attachment and connection with parents to increasing independence and identity formation. Central to that developmental journey is connection with the peer group.
  • This transition is far from seamless and the connections are ever changing. The journey involves a mix of dependency upon and negation of parents, over-identification and idealization of peers, misconnections, failed connections, real connections, denial, sensitivity, hostility, arrogance, loneliness, victimization, fears, rejection, acceptance, isolation and growth.
  • According to psychologist, Dr. John Duffy, teens feel insecure about their bodies, their intelligence, social acceptance and their lovability. Despite countless friends on Facebook and hours of snapchats and texts, teens worry and fear rejection. Often they actually experience their worst fears – sometimes on a daily basis.

Media Connection – “ 13 Reasons Why”

One of the most viewed series by teens has been the Netflix series “ 13 Reasons Why.” The series is the fictional story of a high school girl who commits suicide. Before her death, the girl makes 13 tapes to be heard by each of the people who have played a part in her decision to take her own life. While there are certainly questions to raise about the way depression and suicidal thinking are depicted in the series as well as  the impact of graphic content on teens viewers ( some teens have even posted the exact places to avoid that are too graphic), there is something about this show that teens need.

Does a series that underscores the fragile nature of teen friendships, the rumors of enemies, stalking, bullying, rape, death, drinking, drugs and ultimate tragedy allow teens to revisit what they have witnessed or experienced at a distance? Maybe. Do teens yearn for connection even to fictional figures that validate what they feel and have carried alone? Probably

Does the fact that many teens (particularly girls) post that they have watched this series with parents and have cried and talked together invite a use of media to address otherwise unmentioned topics? I think so.

How Can Parents Connect to Help Teens Cope with Traumatic Events?

We often say in trauma and disaster response work, that you don’t start making friends in the midst of the disaster. Rather, if you have an ongoing connection, it is not only available when the unexpected happens; it is actually buffers the blow and serves as a predictable place of safety and help.

Be an Available Parent

The concept of being an “ Available Parent” comes from psychologist, John Duffy, author of the book with that title. His suggestions do not underestimate the challenges and fears that teens pose for parents; but they offer a way to stay close in the good times and difficult times. He suggests that parents:

Embrace “ The Good Enough Teen” – acknowledge, accept, and believe in the essential goodness of your teen even if he/she is not leaping tall buildings or living up to your expectations. Teens want their parents to care and love them.

“ Love me the way you would love me if I turned out the way you pictured.” Amy, 15

 Find Time to Connect On Their Terms– try watching what they watch with them, listen to their music in the car, learn their video games, ask for their help with your project, share thoughts about your past or passion. Take them to the concert-But don’t stand near them.

 Catch Them Being Good- Have more positive comments to make then negative. Teens rise to the occasion when they think they are succeeding.

 Stay Connected when They Mess Up- Share Your Feelings- Discuss Consequences and Let it Go- When mistakes are made, deal with them but don’t make the mistake result in a life sentence or a definition of your teen.

When A Traumatic Event Occurs

  • No matter what happens, you want your teen to know they can come home for safety, connection and resources for help.
  • Because your psychological state impacts their stress regulation, take care of yourself and be available to hold them  physically and psychologically.
  • I have often told parents who were holding small children in the aftermath of a disaster or tragedy that they are the lifelines – if they are ok the children will be ok – that holds for teens as well.
  • Your presence and the resumption of normal routines will help. A family narrative of what happened, shared tears, as well as space for teens to connect and grieve with peers  are all important
  • Be aware of teen reactions after a traumatic event – Identification (It could have happened to me); Guilt (I could have stopped it); Grief (Feelings of loss, Anger at adults and Feeling Vulnerable). Often they just need someone to listen and verify their feelings as understandable and similar to what many feel.
  • Support your teen’s concern for others with what is called Buddy Care.   This is a process where  Teens learn the warning signs and help each other find a parent or safe adult when a friend is dealing with depression, risk taking or suicidal thinking. Everyone benefits.

I once intervened in the aftermath of a terrible fatal accident of a high school boy. When I met the other seniors and had a chance to speak with them, I asked what message they would like me to share with their parents. The collective answer was “ Tell them to stop worrying and asking us every five minutes—are you ok?” That said, those same teens were relieved that their parents had gathered that night to get support in the aftermath of the tragedy. They want the connection- they don’t just want parents anxious about them.

How Do Parents Know When Their Teen is Crying for Help?

Being close to your teen in the day-to-day makes you more likely to notice when things are starting to unravel.

 Some Warning Signs That Warrant Connection and Professional Help

  • Physical Changes– can’t sleep, eat, concentrate, or engage in formally enjoyable activities.
  • Emotional Appearance – emotions seem blunted and your teen seems depressed. Your teen’s emotions seem excessive- can’t seem to control feelings. Also of concern are rapid shifts in emotional states.
  • Excessive Anger or Blame – directed to you, self or others as outbursts, agitation, and destructive behavior.
  • Changes in Personal Actions– excessive talking, ritualistic behavior, isolation, can’t concentrate on schoolwork, stops participating in sports, music or usual activities, evidence of substance abuse, truancy, and solitary behavior.
  • Threats – to self, giving away valuables, threats about life being too hard.
  • Suicidal Thinking reflects emotional pain, despair and hopelessness – the fear is that the emotional pain will never change. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

If you are worried, seek help together with your teen. Seek referrals from your school professionals or professional organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

For a teen, the connection of an unconditionally loving parent is a protective factor and resource for whatever life brings.


 Listen in to Psych Up Live to hear the fascinating podcast on “ Wildhood: The Epic Journey From Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals.”