Last Friday in Ottawa, Canada where I live, there was a serious bus accident on our transitway, the dedicated route for buses that runs from East to West through the city. Three people died and many people were seriously injured. The accident happened just before 4 p.m. so not only were people coming home from work, but older children and youth would have been travelling home from school.
Everyone who had a good friend or family member travelling on the transitway would have been frantic and, because so many of us use public transit, all of us will know someone who was affected. Of all young people, in any city, youth and young adults are one of the largest groups using public transit. This is my advice on how to help them manage their feelings after such a serious accident. This is advice for those situations when neither your child nor a friend nor family member was a victim in the accident.
There are three things to remember to help your teen after an accident:
1. We all want correct information about what happened.
2. We all need loved ones around us, as support, and for teens that includes their friends.
3. We need to be aware that conversation can help – and to realize when it is no longer helpful.
If you live in Ottawa, or if you have had a terrible accident happen in your town, I am sure that when you first learned about it, you did what I did. When I heard there had been an accident near me, I went to the local television news channel. A teen would likely have first contacted a friend or friends to see if they knew anything about the accident, but then they would likely have drifted over to wherever you were watching this online. Like you, your teen wants accurate information. News outlets on or close to the scene may interview witnesses but not all witnesses have accurate information. This is a good time to remind yourself and your teen that, even if you agree with one or more witness’ opinions, the most accurate information usually comes from elected officials or police spokespersons providing up-to-date accounts of what has happened. If your teen does not feel like waiting to hear these, let them know that you will send them a link to these statements when they come out. Having the correct information is one of the most helpful elements in ensuring we manage our feelings about a difficult situation.
The second thing you can do to be a support to a loved one who is concerned or worried about an accident is to be available. You might consider cancelling plans for the evening or making sure that your child knows exactly how to reach you. It might also help some in your family to do something on behalf of those affected. In situations like this, we can often make small donations or bring baked goods or snacks to a place where those directly affected are being supported.
Finally, it can be helpful to talk about what happened and about how we’re feeling, but there are a few caveats about these conversations. In situations that are emotional, dialogue can sometimes be better encouraged with statements and not questions. For example, saying, “I was so worried about Aunt Jane when I heard about the accident,” may be more effective at starting a conversation than, “How did you feel when you heard?” Another good piece of advice is to remember to make sure that the discussion is helping everyone to feel better and not just you. If your child seems to be withdrawing or looking more sad or angry as the discussion continues, it’s likely better to stop talking. Finally, remember that, while talking can help, it’s best not to force a conversation.
Before finishing, I want to remind you all again that these suggestions are meant to help you speak with your teen when something difficult like an accident has happened in your town but not directly to you. When a life-threatening event has happened directly, then there are other issues to consider such as the impact of trauma or future safety. But I hope this advice will help you talk to your teen about events that were difficult for other people and that make them frightened about bad things happening to them.