Dealing with Tragedy, by Mark Gregston

By Jessica Suggs

April 19, 2013

It was a beautiful day for a run. Though the Boston Marathon is by invitation only, the runners assembled were not your superstar athletes, but rather your typical moms, dads, accountants, firemen, grandpas, grandmas, students and scholars. They were average people who, through hard work and dedication, had earned the opportunity to run through the streets of the city. But before many of them made it to the finish line, the goal that these runners had spent years preparing for, the bombs went off and a senseless and mindless tragedy changed the course of the race forever.

In the aftermath of the attack at the Boston Marathon, people across the country are in a state shock, fear, anger and apprehension. The horrific images are burned into our memory. Though we look for answers to Why? How? and Who? most of us are still busy praying for the victims and reeling from the sheer injustice of innocent people being wounded or killed.

As someone who has spent the majority of his life around kids, I know that teens are especially attuned to injustice. Kids have a hard time realizing that life is not a static experience. It’s always shifting. So when the world around them starts to shake and senseless tragedies make national headlines, many teens can become angry and lash out while others isolate themselves and internalize their grief. We might not think that tragedies in Boston or Newton or Aurora can affect teens living hundreds of miles away, but these terrible events do impact all of us in profound ways.

Let me share some ways you can help your teenager (and maybe yourself, as well) deal with senseless acts of violence like the Boston Marathon bombing.

Acknowledge the Loss

As teenagers begin to face the realization that the world isn’t the happy and carefree place they once thought it was, they might experience a deep sense of sadness and grief. Coming face-to-face with death and tragedy causes a loss of innocence. It’s not easy for an adolescent to witness the end of a life at the beginning of their own.

During these times of reflection and sadness, it’s important to allow kids to have time to express their grief. Don’t ignore the sorrow or look the other way when your teen mourns. Instead, be attentive to your child and notice those things that will show you what he’s really experiencing. Have patience and encourage him not only to express his sadness, anger, and frustration, but also to let go of those feelings a little at a time.

A friend who worked with me at Kanakuk Kamp in the ‘80s made a statement that has stayed with me through the years. He said, “The moods of a lifetime are often set in the all-but-forgotten events of childhood.” If your teen holds onto his grief instead of processing it and moving past it, that grief may become the “mood of a lifetime.” Lashing out or isolating herself may be your daughter’s way of trying to navigate these difficult feelings, and she needs your help to process it all! Help your teens identify feelings of grief and anger and allow them to express these emotions in a safe and respectable way. This doesn’t mean you will know what your children are feeling all the time, but you have the capability to help them put words to difficult emotions.

As you watch, listen, or read about the events of the Boston Marathon, keep the lines of dialogue open with your child. Your teen will use the relationship that you established before the loss to determine how much he will rely on you during a time of grieving. Work to build your relationship with your teen now so that she will be willing to come to you when future tragedies of life become a reality.

Release the Anger

There is nothing wrong with being angry. In fact scripture says, “Be angry,” but it also says, “…but don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:26). When we see acts of cruelty, scenes of chaos, or loss of life, it’s natural to feel anger and rage over a fallen world where bad things happen to good people. But in the same way that adults need to channel their anger into appropriate outlets, teen anger must be dealt with or it will grow into a sinful attitude. Bottled up inside, feelings of frustration or resentment can one day explode in a white-hot shower of hurtful words and broken relationships.

So direct your teens to acceptable ways of expressing anger. Show them appropriate methods to deal with their emotions, and give them ways to let off steam. We had a young man at Heartlight many years ago who had serious anger issues revolving around his broken impressions about the world and the people in it. So I gave him an old golf club and told him to go out and beat on a tree when he felt like he couldn’t handle things any more. It gave him a way to dissipate his anger without hurting himself or anyone else while we worked with him to understand and process the truly awful things that had happened to him.

It’s not always easy to see when our children are upset. Teenage rage can be expressed in many different ways. It can be hot, physical and vengeful, or it can be cold, isolating and calculating. Whatever form anger takes, dealing with it begins with understanding what anger is and what causes it.

There was a young lady at Heartlight named Sarah who came to us because of her anger issues. You see, the day she turned six, her father, a state trooper, was working an extra shift. Running late for her birthday party, he was hurrying home when he had a fatal car accident. Her mother later remarried and life went on, but when Sarah became a teenager she began resenting her step-father and became a very angry young woman.

On the outside, her parents witnessed her hostile words and rebellion and concluded that her step-father was the cause. But Sarah didn’t think her mom’s husband was a bad guy. In fact, she cared for him a great deal. Rather, it was the absence of her real dad and the grief she was experiencing which made her angry. As she talked with the Heartlight counselors and began to process her anger she learned how to appropriately deal with her dad’s passing. Sadly, she blamed herself for her father’s death, since he was rushing home to attend her birthday party when it happened. The loss of her dad will always be with her, but Sarah has learned how to properly deal with the emotions she feels because of it.

Look, it’s never productive to simply put a lid on anger—if you do, it will manifest itself somewhere else. Wise parents or counselors will spend time talking through these issues with teens. Asking questions like “What are you thinking about when you have these angry feelings?” is better than asking “Why are you so angry all the time?” It changes the statement from one of blame to one of interest. The goal should be to create an environment that looks for solutions, while ensuring that teens aren’t afraid to express their true emotions in an acceptable manner.

As parents, we know that this world can be a difficult place to grow up in. The events in Boston only reinforce that notion. As our teens witness tragic events around the world, we have the opportunity not only to help them deal with feelings of grief and anger at evil, but we also have the chance to point them in the direction of the Savior who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas. For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Go to www.heartlightministries.org. Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org

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