This past weekend, at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a violent act of such unconscionable magnitude took place that many people are still sorting out the emotional and psychological impact. So many of my peers and friends, inside and outside the LGBT community, have been riding an emotional roller coaster from anger to fear, with grief, confusion, and sadness rolled into the mix.
As challenging as it is for adults to experience and process these emotions, it may be even more daunting for LGBT teens still sorting out their identity. Many of the teens I work with in therapy are feeling very vulnerable and fragile in the aftermath of the June 12 massacre, which took the lives of 49 people and injured dozens more. These teens’ sense of self and safety has been rocked on a level most people will never understand.
And in this age of smartphones, social media, and instantaneous information, the raw, disturbing images and videos of the events in Orlando have been all but unavoidable for many teens. They are seeing news reports about the shooter and the victims, witnessing reactions from around the world, hearing people talk, and whispering among themselves.
It is vital that all kids be allowed to safely sort out their reactions and feelings to this tragedy; this is especially true for LGBT teens. As a therapist who specializes in working with LGBT teens and their families, here are some of the ways you can support your teen or someone you know through this rough time:
- Help them sort out and name their feelings. When a seemingly senseless act of violence or other tragedy occurs, it is often difficult for our brains and bodies to process the emotional surge that occurs. Assist teens in identifying and naming their feelings, and then validate that these feelings are a normal and powerful response to the situation. Ask plenty of open-ended questions. If you think it would help, perhaps share some of your own feelings as a means of keeping the conversation flowing, but try not to dominate the conversation.
- Discuss the issue of safety and security. Be aware that LGBT teens may be feeling deep sadness for peers who were killed, injured, or personally affected by the tragedy, and may be feeling unsafe and unsure. Initiate a conversation about creating or maintaining a basic sense of safety in the home, at school, and in public. Promote the idea that awareness and preparation are a strong and productive way to address these feelings.
- Talk about the importance of compassion and empathy, and remind them that they are not alone in their feelings. Encourage conversations about how others are affected by the event, and ask whether there are ways you, your family, or the teen personally can help support those people. Perhaps look at ways to champion a relevant cause, consider donating in support of the victims and their families, see if there are meaningful community events you or they could attend, and encourage the teen to reach out to other LGBT youth to provide support, comfort, and conversation.
- Come together as a family to surround your teen with love and support. If they want to watch applicable news stories, offer to watch with them and talk about it afterward if they feel so inclined. If they want to immerse themselves in social media, remind them you are nearby in case they get overwhelmed by what they see, read, or write. Encourage them to seek out positive stories of people helping and communities coming together, which may reinforce the good in the world and help them feel less alone.
- If it feels like the overwhelm they are experiencing is not diminishing with time, assist them in finding professional help. Many LGBT teens may feel this on a personal, deep, gut level, and could be experiencing posttraumatic stress. Finding a therapist who works with LGBT teens, or even a local LGBT support group, may be worthwhile.
Providing a framework for open, honest conversation and emotional expression is critical in helping teens develop an understanding of what a difficult event means for them and their community. Coming together as a family to create a safe space may help your teen feel loved and supported as they sort through the many emotions triggered by this tragedy. If you need additional support, please consider seeking a trained therapist who has experience with LGBT populations, young people in particular.
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