Talking to Kids about Gun Violence
By Melanie Wells
“As of 2020, guns are the leading cause of death among children in the United States.”
This disturbing statistic (Parenting Horizons podcast, Julie Ross, MA and Gregory Abbey, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-parenting-horizons-podcast/id1542426353) pressures parents to grapple with a painful task: how and when to talk about gun violence with their kids. Our nation’s stubborn, tragic and intractable epidemic of gun violence, even in schools, raises the possibility of terror in a space where children used to assume they were safe. Parents need to start the conversations that will help their children cope with uncertainty, and must manage to do so while neither escalating children’s fears, nor avoiding them.
Open – and keep open – the door to communication. Keep it simple. Keep it truthful. And only answer the questions you’ve been asked. –Julie Ross, MA and Gregory Abbey, Parenting Horizons podcast
According to Ross there are only a few rules for tackling this tricky parental responsibility: “Open – and keep open – the door to communication. Keep it simple. Keep it truthful. And only answer the questions that you’ve been asked.”
Further, says Ross, “…emotions about this topic obviously run high … it’s okay to show your feelings in moderation as long as you model recovery as well. You don’t want your children feeling like they have to comfort you.”
It’s tempting to think, with the searing shock of the Uvalde school shooting now fading, that the threat of gun violence in schools has receded. But after every summer recess the season shifts and our children head back to their classrooms. When they do, they also return to lockdown drills, as common a fixture now as fire drills.
The drills are practical and necessary; they prepare teachers and students to react quickly and in orderly fashion under threat. The youngest children may not grasp why they are huddling and locking down, but as they mature, they become increasingly aware of what they’re practicing. And, as there is no predicting when another tragedy may hit, parents have a responsibility to address the stress their children face, unrelated to social life, academics or peer pressure, but stemming from an undercurrent of fear for their bodily safety.
As parents, you can prepare for this conversation, just as your children prepare for danger in their schools. Parents should be ready to listen to worries, and to answer children’s questions about gun violence. And if there are no questions, be prepared to respond to signs of anxiety around these issues, which may or may not be articulated or brought into the open.
The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic of school shootings until your child is around eight years old, if possible, but it depends on the child. “If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this,” says practicing physician, resilience expert, author and parent, Dr. Deborah Gilboa, noting that before age 8, “children struggle to process it.” In a segment from “Today” Gilboa says, with respect to school shootings, “First, you have to process your own emotional response.” Therefore, she says, “Have your first reaction away from your child.”
If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this. Children struggle to process it. -Dr. Deborah Gilboa
Dr. Gilboa recommends approaching conversations on school shootings based on the child’s age and ability to process frightening topics. She divides strategies by age groups:
PRE-SCHOOL & KINDERGARTEN: KEEP IT SIMPLE. The narrative you offer should “reinforce [your] beliefs,” says Gilboa. For example, parents may “want their children to know that a bad person hurt people… [or that] someone with a serious illness felt angry and hurt people.” Frame the subject simply, in a way that fits your family’s values and ethos. Also, for this age,
KEEP IT SHORT: A “one-sentence story” will suffice, for “anyone under 6,” said Gilboa. Focus on the positives; identify a hero in the story if you can.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: FOCUS ON THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE – Decide ahead on what you’d like your child to take away from the conversation and determine how much you will share. At this age, don’t just let children watch the news – images can haunt them much longer and more powerfully than words. If your child does see disturbing footage or images, be ready to counter them with a positive photo. “Let’s see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help,” says Gilboa.
TWEENS: ALWAYS ASK BEFORE YOU DISCUSS. With tweens, start the conversation by asking if they’ve heard about the latest shooting, and if so, how they feel about it, then listen to their feelings. Finally, bring the conversation around to your values: “…do not focus on the … gore [but] on the person you are raising,” Gilboa said.
TEENS: LOOK FOR SOLUTIONS
As with tweens, ask first if they’ve heard about the latest shooting, and then listen, letting them express how they feel about it. However, cautions Gilboa, don’t stop there; teens “expect more.” At this age, kids are “looking for … solutions and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask ‘What are you doing?’ You can respond by asking them, “What would you like to do? What can we do together?”
In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, TX, countless horrified parents worried about what to say to their own children. Two experts at the Yale Child Study Center offer similar central messages to Dr. Gilboa’s: “The most important action parents can take is to listen to their children,” say both Steven Marans, MSW, PhD and Carrie Epstein, LCSW. (https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/school-shootings-talk-with-kids) Marans and Epstein, both Co-Directors of the Yale Center for Traumatic Stress and Recovery, advise parents to “first focus on turning down the volume of their own stress reactions, because kids turn to adults for … emotional stability … structure, predictability, and order in their daily lives.” Both also say the ability to “listen calmly to your children’s concerns is one of the most powerful ways of helping them feel safe and secure.”
They caution parents against constant focus on news cycles: Parents should “limit their own news consumption” and also help older children “think through whether the frequency with which they are checking the news is helpful or whether it sometimes becomes… more stressful.” Parents who do limit news consumption “will be better able to help kids make sense of what they’re seeing and hearing.” The endless cycle of bad news on repeat is helpful to no one and potentially harmful to one’s ability to navigate conversation calmly and effectively.
Marans and Epstein recommend keeping calm. If your child asks, are we safe? parents should maintain calm when they respond. “If there is no immediate threat to family and friends, say so.” Also, keep in mind that even though school shooting tragedies powerfully impact our feelings, they are “relatively rare.” It is important for parents to assure children that the “adults around them are doing everything possible” to keep them safe.
Parental calm can also extend to the manner of response and the kinds of words parents choose. Marans and Epstein advise, “Do not speculate or repeat rumors, and resist over-explaining.” Parents should act as a “buffer” between their children and the stresses of the world around them. However, this should not mean avoiding or denying their natural response to violent events; rather, parents should remember that an upset response is inevitable and normal. Marans and Epstein note that “your children may get upset talking about disturbing things – know that this is natural.” Maintain calm; your ability to do so “demonstrates your strength and unshakeable commitment to them.”
Marans and Epstein also note that children should feel free to express their distress. Help your children understand that “it is okay to show you when they are upset,” so they can learn to cope with “strong feelings and scary thoughts. If there is no one there for them, children may try to hide their feelings and become overwhelmed as they try to deal with their worries alone.” If they need not avoid showing their worries for fear of upsetting you, they will begin to learn to build their own resilience.
Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, your child may need more help than you alone can give. These signs may indicate professional support is needed:
- Depressed or irritable mood
- More neediness or clinginess – or difficulty separating
- A resistant and defiant attitude
- Difficulty focusing on tasks or activities of daily life
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches
- Changes in appetite or sleep
- Toileting problems
- Pre-occupation with frightening thoughts
Don’t hesitate to seek help, even if you are not certain whether the time is right. “Trust your instincts and seek advice whenever you are concerned about the level of distress you are observing in your child,” advise Marans and Epstein.
Trust your instincts and seek advice whenever you are concerned about the level of distress you are observing in your child. – Steven Marans, MSW, PhD and Carrie Epstein, LCSW
And keep the conversational door open. Your steady, calm and loving willingness to talk and listen is the greatest source of comfort to a worried child.