Teaching youth to cope with the situation05 January 2020
I propose that we try to protect our youth at early ages against later emotional and behavioral problems by teaching them a range of coping skills for life. What if we taught them skills in late elementary or middle school to help manage their distress, t
Today's youth continue to be barraged by horrific images of death and violence that are happening in the most ordinary places. Our 21st century youth must manage this overwhelming reality of 24-hour news cycle media reports of 9/11, of students and teachers being shot dead in their Newtown elementary school classrooms, of college students around the country trying and failing to dodge bullets shot by fellow students in their dormitories, of adults being shot dead in their local church, of employees being killed during their holiday party in San Bernadino CA, of Parisians being shot while eating dinner in their popular city restaurants, and of children and adults being murdered while simply going to their local theatre to watch a new movie release, to name just a few. We can help our youth to navigate this 21st century problem by better understanding its effects and teaching skills that will help them manage their distress.
How does exposure to death and violence affect our children?
Retrospective studies of "single-incident traumas" find that both direct and indirect exposure, including media exposure, can significantly increase feelings of anxiety, fear and vulnerability in youth. School shootings, in particular, have been shown to increase symptoms of post-traumatic stress, as well as feelings of insecurity and feeling too unsafe to attend school. While the research is in its nascent stages, clinical-researchers have begun to identify varied reactions to exposure to such traumatic events. Some school children exhibit their reactions through "externalizing" behaviors (e.g., aggressive, disruptive behaviors) while others exhibit "internalizing" behaviors (e.g., depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviors). While we are still awaiting research data on the effect chronic exposure to these traumatic events has on children over time, it is important to be aware of these initial reactions to recent exposure and give our youth guidance.
What can parents, educators and mental health professionals do to reduce the adverse impact on our kids?
I propose that we try to protect our youth at early ages against later emotional and behavioral problems by teaching them a range of coping skills for life. What if we taught them skills in late elementary or middle school to help manage their distress, to better control their emotional reactions, and to increase their ability to focus on one thing in the moment and to be more aware of their distress in real time when it arises. Further, what if we could teach them how to improve their interpersonal effectiveness, increase their ability to validate themselves and others, and learn how to think and act in more balanced and moderate ways. My colleagues and I have begun this process already in over 30 elementary, middle and high schools by teaching DBT skills to students to equip them with these all important coping skills. We believe arming our youth with an array of coping strategies might also help to prevent or reduce the effects of the exposure to these traumatic cues over time.
What are DBT Skills?
DBT stands for dialectical behavior therapy-an evidence-based psychotherapy originally developed for adults who had difficulty regulating emotions and behaviors. After adapting this therapy for adolescents and families in outpatient settings, my colleagues and I decided to move "upstream" and bring this specific therapy into schools. The school personnel asked us first to help them target their students who were already exhibiting internalizing and/or externalizing problems. More recently, we have begun applying DBT and the life skills more universally to youth in classroom settings. These evidence-based skills include:
Distress tolerance skills
Emotion regulation skills
Interpersonal effectiveness skills
Walking the middle path skills
With these skills our 21st century youth will be better able to cope with the barrage of traumatic life events they experience directly or indirectly and therefore function better at home, at school, and in life.
It is also important how parents, educators, and mental health professional respond to a child that is already exhibiting signs of distress. A few points to consider:
First, adults should be mindful of staying calm and not expressing intense fear since children will follow our emotional lead. Composure in these situations is paramount and adults should try to follow their normal routines and not avoid situations/places they would normally go (e.g., planes; movie theaters; city restaurants).
Second, if the child verbalizes fear about a particular event, it is equally important to validate his/her emotion while at the same time placing the situation and danger in perspective by highlighting the extremely low probability of such an event happening in our local school or theater. For example, a teacher or parent could say, "Yes, it's scary to see and hear about the school shooting in a neighboring State and while it feels close to home the chances of it happening in our local school district or so very low that I don't want you to think you need to avoid school in order to be safe." Discussions of these kinds need to be geared appropriately. Sometimes, for middle and high-school students it can be helpful to facilitate a group discussion as information learned on the internet is not always accurate or their processing of the information can become distorted; thus, debunking myths and providing relevant information can be useful.
Finally, parents, teachers and therapists all need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is not as common as the fear, anxiety, depression, and aggressive behaviors mentioned above but when present can significantly impair a child's functioning. While the symptoms are not always immediately obvious, PTSD symptoms can include: recurrent distressing recollections of the event, nightmares, efforts to avoid trauma-related thoughts, feelings, reminders, impaired sleep, irritable or aggressive behavior, exaggerated startle response, and persistent negative beliefs about oneself and the world, to name a few.
There are effective trauma-focused evidence-based therapies for such conditions.
In sum, there is help and hope out there - by giving our youth the necessary tools to cope with 21st century issues, we will embolden them for a future of resilience and well-being.
- Courtesy: Psychologytoday