Storm Rising

Adolescents stand as harbingers of hope amid times of trouble

Posted Dec 11, 2015

For anyone with access to television, the Internet, social media or even a newspaper on the doorstep, it’s impossible to escape the endless, breathless reporting of atrocities at home and abroad – carried out by “radicalized extremists.” Labels aside, a rise in targeted, planned attacks on innocent people playing out their daily lives is easily matched by a concurrent rise in anxieties and insecurities.

That fact was highlighted in a New York Times/CBS News poll released on December 10, 2015, revealing that, “Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.”

Among the inevitable questions such fearmongering elicits is, “What do we tell the children?”

A good question, for sure.

As Belinda Luscombe writes in TIME, “When terrible events happen, such as the attacks on Paris, parents’ immediate instinct is to shield their children from them. While this is perfectly natural … it may not always be the best approach, according to experts.” Luscombe goes on to quote one such expert, Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, as saying, “It’s very likely that your child will hear about what happened, and it’s best that it comes from you so that you are able to answer any questions, convey the facts, and set the emotional tone.”

The TIME article, “How to Talk to Your Kids About the Attacks in Paris,” goes on to offer age-appropriate advice on how best to approach the topic for preschoolers, elementary school students, middle school children and teens. When all else fails, psychologist Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces, adds a broadbased salve: “SAFE.”

S – Search of hidden questions or fears (ask what’s on their minds)
A – Act (keep routines going)
F – Feel feelings (let them know their feelings make sense)
E – Ease minds (assure them of their safety)

Other available resources include CBS News’ “After Paris Attacks, How to Talk to Your Kids About Terrorism,” The Huffington Post’s “Here’s How You Could Talk to Your Kids About the Attacks,” The Washington Post’s “How to Talk to Your Child About the Islamic State,” and the Los Angeles Times’ “How to Talk to Your Kids About the San Bernardino Shootings.”

Great guides, one and all.

Alas, talk may be cheap, but it is essential in helping children and young adults grapple with the insanity that seems to be gripping our nation and our world.

And it’s not the first time.

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, the column “Helping Teens Through Turbulent Times” took a broader look at the potential developmental disruptions brought about by violent, senseless acts: “Never before have adults and children so uniformly sought such elusive explanations or worked harder to find ‘normal,’ knowing all the while that normal doesn’t really exist anymore. The horrible, incalculable events of that day left in their wake something both less tangible and more insidious … a collective uncertainty about the formerly predictable, ordered ‘world’ we cognitively constructed in order to find meaning in life, love, and work.”

Truth be told, adolescence is consumed by a relentless search for identity, independence, and social/emotional connections with peers: issues all young people struggle with as they navigate the path from childhood to adulthood. That struggle contains not a small amount of uncertainty, anxiety and even fear. The “one step forward, two steps back” paradigm of adolescent development requires a not-so-peaceful coexistence of freedom and safety, along with healthy doses of predictability, self-confidence and trust.

Unfortunately, those are the very things that now seem lost.

As Kathleen Parker advises in a recent column, “‪Americans‪ looking for a blankie to ease their anxieties about the Islamic State will have to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.”

What there is certainty about is that American adolescents are a remarkably adaptable, pragmatic and resilient segment of our population. Their natural proclivity toward positive risk-taking, problem-solving and service to others, perhaps particularly in times of crisis, makes them a considerable force during these difficult times. They seem to have just the right combination of sensitivity, empathy, focus and action that America needs.

Indeed, it has been noted that, of Generation Z (born mid-to-late 2000s to present), 60 percent of them want to make a difference in the world, compared to just 39 percent of the Millennial generation preceding them.

One such Z’er, Jenn Little, explains, “Generation Z has an abundance of resources to do ‘something’ with. It’s daunting to be this young of a generation with such high expectations, but also exciting at the same time.” She cites Forbes as reporting, “Despite the frightening times they’ve faced, only 6% of Zs are fearful about the future. Having grown up amid major innovation and social change, Zs are inquisitive and globally aware. They’re already offering suggestions, solving problems, and proving their savvy, demonstrating how prepared they are for stressful and uncertain times.”

Harbingers of hope across a horizon mostly marked by a rising storm.