Discussing the unspeakable: Steps to foster conversations in the wake of tragedy

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events resulting in the death of 17 people in a school shooting in Parkland, FL, the eighth school shooting that has resulted in death or injury in the US since January 1, 2018, we are re-posting an article first published in October of last year. The context may be slightly different, but the concerns around how our mentees are processing such events unfortunately remain timely, and, hopefully, readers will find the recommendations below to be useful.

Written by Justin Preston

In the wake of the tragic events that occurred nearly two weeks ago in Las Vegas, we as adults can feel at a loss in trying to make sense of what happened and why. With widespread news coverage online and in the media, it is possible that your mentees have learned at least some of the details surrounding the mass shooting. There is a lot of information out there, and not all of it is accurate. As comfortable as we may think youth are with navigating social media, it is important not to overestimate their ability to distinguish between verifiable information and misleading tweets, posts, or headlines.

As mentors, you are well-positioned to serve as a trusted source of information, a sounding board for your mentee’s thoughts and feelings surrounding the tragedy, and as a source of social support. None of that can happen, though, if opportunities aren’t created to discuss the events.

So how do we talk about the subject? Should mentors bring it up first? Should the conversation happen if and only if the mentee brings it up first? These are tough questions, but there are a number of points that can be used to help facilitate the process:

  • Don’t Make Assumptions.
    • Find out what they know before you start your discussion. Ask them what they have heard, to reduce the risk that you may over-share.
  • Let Them Lead the Discussion.
    • Listen first to what they have to say or want to ask and then respond
  • Consider Their Age.
    • Between ages 6-10: Just ask them how their day was or if they learned anything interesting — this is a way to see if in fact they heard anything, and see if they’d like to discuss it.
    • Older than 10: You may want to assume they have overheard something — so you can suggest that they have as a conversation starter such as, “Did you and your friends talk today about what happened in Las Vegas…?”
  • Repeat the Conversation.
    • Talk about it more than once and revisit the topic as they may get more information, and may feel worried about it as they process it. Adults are often hesitant to bring up a topic such as this more than once out of concern that they are causing unnecessary fear but that is generally not the case. The context of the conversations is important here. By creating a nonjudgmental, supportive space, the stage is set for meaningful discussions on a challenging topic.
  • Offer Perspective.
    • Be sure to overtly say that there are more good people than bad people in the world and that there is more love than hate.
  • Find the Teachable Moments in Your Conversations.
    • Ask them how they handle anger, bullies, hate statements, or sad feelings. It makes the conversation more productive and teaches them new skills and ways to have conversations at same time.

These are challenging conversations, but they are important ones that can help your mentee put the event into context. Letting them set the direction of the conversation, at least initially, can be a small but meaningful way of also reaffirming their sense of control and agency. For those readers who are either directly or indirectly affected by the events in Las Vegas, the American Psychological Association has tips on managing distress that you may find helpful. Tragedies such as the one that occurred in Las Vegas can shake a nation, but by reminding our mentees (and each other) that we have support we can find our footing once again.

Steps adapted from a previously written article for psychcentral.com, click to read more.