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Trigger Warning! 9 Tips to Introduce a Sensitive Subject
Prepare yourself and your youth
Maria Luisa Tucker, Editorial Director, Youth Communication

If you’re familiar with our stories, you know that our teen writers often describe experiences that can be triggering for readers. For example, a story about abuse may elicit uncomfortable reactions from readers who have also been abused or witnessed abuse. So how do you broach a subject like violence, trauma, or mental illness in a responsible way? The answer: with sensitivity.

We suggest taking extra time to prepare yourself and your youth before reading a sensitive story. For some students with previous traumas, being presented with the triggering material in the group setting can feel overwhelming. Our panel of advisers, all of whom are mental health professionals, suggested these specific steps:

1. Read the story carefully before presenting it. Think about how you will respond to a story before bringing it to an individual or a group of youth. If you have a strong reaction or a story brings up powerful memories for you, it might not be the right story to present.

2. Warn the group that the story may trigger strong emotions. If you anticipate that a story might be highly triggering to your youth, you may want to let the group know what you’re planning a week in advance. This will allow a participant who has a history of trauma to either opt out of that session or prepare for the upcoming topic with your help or the help of a counselor or therapist, if they have access to one. You can also allow group members to read the material in advance, which can help them feel more in control.

A possible script might be: “We’ll be reading a story about X next week. Some of this material may be disturbing or especially difficult depending on what you’ve experienced in your own life. If you’d like to read it on your own before we read it as a group, let me know. When we do read it together, it’s OK to put your head down, step out of the room, get a drink of water, walk around a bit if it feels like too much for you. Whether you’ve experienced something similar or have been a bystander, this kind of thing can bring up uncomfortable emotions, and that’s normal.” If you’re reading the story aloud, remind your youth that they can pass if they just want to listen.

3. Reinforce the safe space. You want students to feel safe and supported while they read the story and while the group talks about it. You also want them to feel free to express themselves, if they choose. Through your own actions and interactions with group members, strive to create a setting in which participants’ thoughts and feelings are respected, even by teens who may disagree or feel uncomfortable.

If you have group agreements, remind everyone of those, especially any about how members interact with one another (such as allowing people to speak before responding, and avoiding dismissive or other uncaring responses).

Conversely, though most students have an innate sense of what not to share in a group, reading an emotional story could result in an some members inappropriately disclosing intimate details of their lives. You can let everyone know ahead of time that discussion should center on the story, not on group members’ personal experiences. But also tell them that if they’d like to talk further with you after the session, you are available. In most cases, simply making yourself available and listening is reassuring to the teen. However, you should also know what mental health professionals may be available so you can make a referral if you feel a student needs additional support.

4. Invite a mental health professional to join the group or have referrals ready. Reading and discussing our stories with a group may also present an opportunity to introduce the school social worker, staff psychologist, counselor, or other mental health professional. You might say something like, “We’ll be reading a story about a teen who suffered from depression today, so I invited the school social worker, Ms. Davis, to talk a little bit about what depression is and what kinds of help there is for it.” For youth who feel a stigma around mental health issues, this can break down some barriers and help them feel more comfortable with the idea of getting help from a professional.

If you don’t have an on-staff resource to turn to, look for community resources (for example, in New York City, The Door and many other agencies provide free counseling) You might also give out relevant hotlines and websites. See our Finding Help section for a list of resources.

5. Do some psychoeducation. Psychoeducation is education about common ways that one may psychologically respond to a traumatic event or mental health issue. For example, psychoeducation about depression might include information about what depression looks and feels like, statistics on how many people experience it, descriptions of what kind of help there is, and a hotline that someone might call if they are feeling depressed. See our Finding Help section for a list of resources.

6. Check the room for signs of distress. If the teens are reading the story aloud, tell them that they can choose not to take a turn reading. If anyone indicates that it’s a lot to deal with or reminds them of something, let them know that they can put their head down on a desk or step outside. If someone starts crying or displaying another sign of serious distress, you can quietly ask them if they need a break, a tissue, a drink of water, or something else. Follow your instincts about whether the group should take a short recess or keep going, but try not to call attention to the distressed person. If possible, it can be helpful to have two co-facilitators so one person can lead the group and the other can see how people are reacting and step out with someone if necessary.

7. Focus on the writer’s agency and hope. Teens face difficult challenges in many of our stories, but they are not defeated by them. The power of the stories is that they show how a credible peer managed a difficult situation—through self-help, help from friends and caring adults, and help from mental health professionals. Our readers surveys consistently show that reading stories like these helps readers feel less alone and more optimistic about handling the challenges in their lives. Our activities—and any activities or discussion you create around our stories—should focus on agency (the actions teens can take to manage challenges). For example, ask your group to look back at the story and identify ways that the writer was able help him or herself. Did s/he reach out for help? Begin therapy? Find a coping strategy that worked? Of course, our stories don’t have “happily ever after” endings—those are for fairy tales, not real life—but we’ve tried to only post stories on this site that model agency, hope, or resilience.

8. End the discussion with an open door policy. Let your group know that they are welcome to keep talking about the story or the issue with you later. Make it clear that the invitation is for everyone, not just those who may be directly impacted. For example, instead of saying “If you’ve experienced something like this, come talk to me,” you might say “If the story really stuck with you, or if you want to think of ways to help other people who’ve been affected by this, you’re welcome to stay behind to talk with me some more.” This will make it easier for young people to stick around without feeling like they’re outing themselves as depressed or abused or mentally ill.

9. Remind the group again about other supports that are available to them. You may feel like you’re being repetitive, but you should sandwich any difficult discussions with information on who can help. Remind the group again if there is a school social worker, staff psychologist, or counselor who can help. Give out that person’s contact information to everyone.

Luisa Tucker
All Expert Advice articles are written by Maria Luisa Tucker, Youth Communication's Editorial Director, and based on interviews with our advisory board of mental health profressionals.
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