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Peer Relationships & Loss: Tragedy

Yellowbrick peer relationships and loss - photo source: Shutterstock

Peer relationships play an integral role as young adults develop their sense of self. When tragedy strikes, like physical, emotional, mental, or sexual trauma, peer relationships tend to shift, transforming the social and personal development of young adults.  Social, emotional, and peer functioning may be disrupted to a point that professional help is needed to get back on track.

Healthy Peer Relationships Promote Self-Discovery

In healthy relationships, peers equally exchange constructive criticism, develop positive norms and values, and help each other in times of need. Young adults invest in peer relationships as a way to learn about themselves, enable their interests, and secure their emerging adult identities.  Richer, closer relationships shape young adults’ personal constructs, influencing decisions, drives, and self-identity.

For example, the captain of the college football team clearly envisions his future playing professionally with encouragement from his teammates. Driven by his ultimate goal, he lives, breathes, and dreams football with friends who keep him challenged on the field.  As the captain of the team, his peers look up to him with respect and he is admired across campus.  He feels secure in his role as a leader and confident in his choices, collaborating with peers who reinforce his decisions and interests.

Tragedy Changes Peer Relationships and Sense of Self

Unexpected tragedy may seem to drastically alter all aspects young adult’s world.   Usually, peers rely on each other for support. Yet, in the face of tragedy, peers may not have the experience, maturity, availability, or outlets to sustain the relationship. Tragedy stirs up strong emotions including worry, fear, or guilt. Peers may not know what to say or do for a friend in need.  Some cannot manage the added stress and choose to distance themselves from the relationship.  Peers’ reactions may not live up to the expectations of those directly impacted by tragedy. Young adults impacted by tragedy may treat peers poorly, displacing feelings of anger, distress, and rage on those who don’t deserve it.  Tragedy often results in severed relationships. When peer relationships diverge, the social development of young adults may digress.

Tragedy often shakes a young adult’s self-experience, incurring feelings of victimization and lack of identity.  With intense emotions and possible physical set-backs, young adults suffering tragedy may have a hard time reestablishing themselves, their interests, and goals in life.  The behavior of young adults, post-tragedy, may convert to impulsive or risky as unhealthy coping styles replace healthy habits.

What happens to the captain of the team when he sustains a serious injury, leaving him unable to pursue his football dreams? Perhaps his teammates don’t have the time to visit him as the practice schedule remains demanding. When they finally stop by, his peers have no idea how to respond as they watch their captain cry.  Or, the campus forgets his existence as the next quarterback in line quickly replaces him as captain.

His sense of self shattered when his focus shifted to cope with tragedy, his aspirations taken away, he may have no clue how to move forward and falls into a serious state of depression.  He may live in isolation, unable to sustain peer relationships.

Welcoming Professional Help

When tragedy impairs social, emotional, and peer functioning, young adults benefit from welcoming professional help from doctors, counselors, and psychologists. The group of clinicians at the Trauma Recovery Program at Yellowbrick, addresses the complex impact of tragedy by practicing a multi-faceted approach aimed to re-connect the broken constructs as a result of tragedy. Young adults engaging in group therapy find their start in rebuilding peer relationships. Art and yoga therapy intertwine to deliver mindfulness and peace to the tragedy, while trauma education strengthens young adults’ resiliency.

Working through deep emotions caused by tragedy and regaining personal identity following a traumatic occurrence should be supported by family, friends, and a network of resources.  When young adults secure help in processing the impact of tragedy, their outcomes improve. Young adults may find the outlets to reestablish themselves, and return to healthy social development with strong peer relationships.

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