Expert suggests how to talk to kids after a violent weekend claimed the lives of students

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Posted at 5:11 PM, Apr 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-12 17:11:46-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Four teenagers were shot and two were killed in separate acts of violence across the metro-Richmond region over the weekend. A Richmond-area child psychologist said the emotional trauma young people experience after a violent incident can extend beyond the victim’s immediate community.

Dr. Sandra Henderson, a clinical psychologist focusing on children and adolescents, said parents should talk directly and with openness with their children if they heard about violence involving young people in the community.

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“There are a lot of questions, big ones, in life that don't get answered, that are answered unsatisfactorily. So part of it is knowing too, that life is hard sometimes, but we hang together, we stay together, we talk to each other, we support each other,” Dr. Henderson said. “Cry, if you need to cry, feel sad, feel life is unfair, why did this happen? All those things that rise up, those are good things to have rise up and come on out. There might not be resolution for it right now, but they need to have a space to be aired.”

Although those conversations are difficult, Henderson said approaching them with openness can help steer the conversation toward a helpful path.

“Ask them what have you heard about this? Do you have any questions about this? Try to follow your child's lead without supplying too much extra information,” Henderson said. “Teenagers are infamous for going on social media, relying on each other as sources of information and getting a lot of misinformation. Rumors spread wildly and get them fearful and ramped up and going in the wrong direction.”

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Grief and mental health professionals are always onsite at a school after the death of a student, as was the case at both Highland Springs High School in Henrico and George Wythe in Richmond on Monday. Both schools lost a student to weekend gun violence.

Many young people can feel fearful or intimidated by that type of setting, but Henderson said those sessions are typically led by the student.

“It's usually a very calm kind of situation. They feel very supported afterward. And it's not frightening. And they're glad that they did it,” she said.

The grieving process is individually unique but typically is not quick.

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Henderson suggested keeping the following timeline in mind if a friend or family member displayed behavioral or emotional changes following a traumatic situation.

“What's considered a temporary stress reaction is usually 30 days or less. Anything over 30 days is when you need to say okay. But you know, if an adolescent is really struggling before 30 days it’s fine. It's never too soon to reach out for some help,” she said.

For more resources on helping young people experiencing a personal crisis and to hear stories of local people who overcame them, visit our Helping Kids in Crisis section.