Teen Culture

Making Sense of Terror with Your Teen

We’ve reached a point where we can’t remember a time without constant news reports of mass violence or acts of terror. Even if we can step back and recognize that there are more days without them than with them, we still can’t shake the feeling that they’re happening all the time and more than ever.

And teens feel this way as well — maybe even more so.

Their high level of engagement on social media gives them greater and more immediate exposure to the news of the day, especially if it has to do with with the loss of life in a shooting or terrorist act. As if processing this reality for ourselves wasn’t daunting enough, there is the added challenge of helping teens do the same in healthy and age-appropriate ways.

But every teen is different, and they react differently in the face of these kinds of events. How can we help them deal with these overwhelming circumstances and all the reactions they might provoke?

For the teen who is numb or seemingly indifferent to it all:

The loss of life in acts of terror or mass violence is always tragic and painful. It will never cease to be that. If a teen seems callous or indifferent to one of these tragedies, it doesn’t mean they don’t care — more likely it means that they don’t really know how to process yet another event.

If this is the case with your teen, it is really important to gauge what it is that they know by asking a few questions. What have they heard about the incident? What do they think about it? With whom else have they discussed this, and what did they say about it? Do they have any questions about it?

Even if they don’t have long or elaborate answers, asking them creates a space for openly sharing on difficult topics like these, whether it’s in that moment or even hours/days/weeks later. It is reassuring to them that you care what they think, desire to listen to their opinions, and might even provide an opportunity for you to be vulnerable and share your own thoughts. There might also be opportunities for you to seek out more answers together if there is a question your teen has that you don’t know the answer to. Even for the teen who feels like they just can’t feel anything toward these things anymore, it helps to show them that they can talk about it with you if that changes.

For the teen who has lost hope in humanity:

It is very easy to be overwhelmed with sadness and confusion or to lose hope in mankind altogether, as a result of senseless acts of violence. The motivations of a select few often become our focus (or the focus of a lot of the media) after a violent event, and our struggle to figure out why they would commit such awful acts clouds our ability to see any goodness left in anyone.

Be sure to articulate to your teen that these moments of great suffering often demonstrate that there are significantly more people in the world who do not agree with violence, and are willing to come together to solve problems. Reassure them that people are still capable of compassion in the face of senseless evil and suffering. To balance out the sound bites that surround events of mass violence, share positive news stories of ordinary citizens coming together to do amazing things to help their brothers and sisters in need.

Take it a step further by coming up with one or two ways that you, your teen, and your family can also take action — whether it is donating blood, volunteering at a crisis center, writing letters of encouragement to first responders, or some other act than points people to love and unity.

For the teen who is afraid they might be the next victim:

One of the consequences of acts of terror or mass violence is the fear that they incite, and the way they rob ordinary citizens of peace of mind. After the more recent school shootings, teens watch scenes of unimaginable horror unfold on campuses that look a lot like theirs. They start to wonder if their school might be next.

An important part of unpacking these situations is to also talk about a plan for your family in case something like this were to take place in your own schools, workplace, or neighborhood. It can’t hurt to remind your teen to trust the plans set in place by their school faculty, or how important is for them to listen to authorities during events like this. You might go a few steps beyond and create a plan for how your family will communicate or where you would meet if you aren’t able to get a hold of each other, or other adults your teens can turn to if necessary.

Perhaps most important of all is to let your teen know that, while it is smart to have a plan in place, our security comes from our hope in the Lord. You can’t promise that these things won’t ever happen to them or to someone they love; but you can reassure that you love them, that you will always do everything you can to keep them safe, and that there is a loving Father who hears our cries of fear, uncertainty, sadness, and despair. Seize the opportunity to make an honest prayer to God with your teen, encouraging them to hand over their fears to the One who has overcome all darkness. Invite them to join you in praying for peace to abound in every corner of our world — at home, school, work, and in all of our relationships — and commit to doing so daily.

For the teen asking where God is in all of this:

A natural response to tragedy is to ask why God would allow for it to take place. Our confidence in the goodness of God can be shaken in the face of terror and violence because those circumstances make it more difficult to see His providential hand in the world. Teens who might already be questioning God’s qualities, or even the truth of His existence, might be placed on the edge after a mass violence occurrence.

Caring for a teen in this situation can be tricky — we want to acknowledge their concerns but ultimately want to remind them of the Father’s relentless love for us, even when it seems distant or nonexistent. Talk with your teen about the reality of evil in the world, and how evil is a deprivation of the good. God’s desire to give us free will, an ability to choose the good for ourselves, also means we are just as capable of rejecting what is good. Evil, then, is a result of our flawed choices, not of God’s desire, because God can only make good things. Furthermore, God doesn’t just sit back and let evil happen — he responds to sin by sending His Son, Jesus, to provide the antidote: total, self-giving, sacrificial love. In the cross of Christ, we see how love conquers hate and get to witness the defeat of death through complete surrender to the will of the Father.

Take the doubts, questions, and insecurities to prayer with your teen. Plea to God on their behalf, that they might find the light in the midst of the darkness and encounter the love poured out by Christ in a real way. Invite them to talk through their wrestling in prayer with God, and with their youth minister, a Core Member, or a priest at your home parish.

About the Author

Stephanie Espinoza

Stephanie started ministering to teens when she was just a teen herself. When her community at her parish growing up lacked a youth ministry effort that addressed the needs of Hispanic teens, she and her siblings and friends started their own. After years of volunteering her time as a teen, the Lord led her to study the New Evangelization at John Paul the Great Catholic University and to work in ministry at the very parish where she grew up. Today, she happily serves as the Coordinator of Hispanic Ministry Resources and Outreach for Life Teen, enjoys getting lost in a good book, appreciates the art of curating the perfect music playlist, and is learning to uncover the underrated perks of desert life.