Dr. Rachel Kramer
May 25: Talking with Children About Gun Violence
I’m writing today in the context of feeling both heartbroken and outraged. It feels overwhelming to process the tragic, senseless violence that has occurred in Buffalo, NY, Uvalde, TX, and so many other places. My sense of sorrow and fear is exacerbated by feelings of impotence and helplessness about how the epidemic of gun violence in our country will ever change. Although part of me just wants to sit down and weep, instead I’m taking the small action of reaching out to share thoughts on how to talk about this devastating topic with your children.
It's important to begin by thinking and talking about your own reaction to these tragedies. The death of innocent people is always horrifying, and our feelings of dismay are that much more magnified when the victims are children. Feeling overwhelmed, distraught, or terrified by these events is understandable. Try and find a sympathetic, caring adult to talk with about your feelings - a partner, family member, or close friend - that you can begin to process your reaction. I’m not suggesting that you should hide all of your emotions from your child. For some people that may not feel realistic or possible. Rather, I think it’s helpful to talk with another adult first so that when you speak with your child you are more settled and a bit more calm. As I have said before, children take their emotional cues from the adults around them. Therefore, if you are able to talk with your child at a time when you feel more settled, you will provide more space for your child to be able to speak openly about their own feelings and reactions.
Often when a tragedy occurs families ask me for help deciding whether or not to broach the topic with their children. If you have a toddler or preschooler who has not been exposed to media and does not have contact with older children, you may not need to raise the topic at all. I’d recommend observing your child’s behavior, play, and conversation to see if there are any indicators of increased anxiety or themes of guns, violence, or shooting, which might indicate that your child was exposed to this news without your being aware of the exposure. In addition, I’d suggest reaching out to your child’s teacher and ask them to let you know if the topic comes up at school so that you can initiate a conversation with your young child if this happens.
If your young child has been exposed to information about gun violence, or if your child has observed you or other adults who are having strong reactions to the news, be honest about the fact that you are distressed and reassure your child that you are not upset with them and your reactions are not their fault:
“I heard some news about something sad that happened far away. You are safe and our family is safe.”
“I’m having some big feelings right now. I heard some sad news. Even when I am upset I’m still here for your and I will still keep you safe.”
If your child is in elementary school, you could check-in with your child’s teacher to find out of the topic came up in class. However, keep in mind that children are also exposed to classmates on the bus and at recess, so teachers may not be aware if children are talking about gun violence outside of class. In general, I think it’s realistic to assume that many school-aged children will have at least partial knowledge of the fact that there have been recent incidents of gun violence. When talking with school-aged children:
Begin by asking questions to get a sense of what your child knows and what they may have questions about. If it feels easiest, you could start with a very general question such as, “Was anyone at school talking about the news today?”
If your child has some information, seek to clarify what they know so that you can provide age-appropriate facts and correct any mis-information.
For school-aged children, limit exposure to media about gun violence as much as you can.
Encourage your child to ask questions and answer those questions directly. If your child asks an upsetting question such as, “Did any children die?” remember that providing honest answers will build your child’s trust in the fact that they can count on you to be truthful even when talking about scary and upsetting topics.
Focus on your child’s feelings:
o “Kids might feel scared and upset about this. Remember that my most important job is to keep you safe.”
o “How did you feel when you heard that someone brought a gun to a school? I’m wondering if it was upsetting to hear that?”
o “Sounds like you felt really sad when your friend told you that some kids died. I understand that you felt sad. I will always do everything I can to keep you safe.”
If your child is in middle school or high school, it’s realistic to assume that they will have heard or read about these violent incidents. When talking with tweens and teens:
Ask about what your child has heard or read, ask about their feelings, and let them talk and process. Focus on listening to your tween or teen without judgement. Gun violence is an upsetting topic and one of the most helpful things that parents can do emphasize connection and reassure adolescents that they do not need to process this information alone.
Remind teens that doom scrolling social media about an upsetting topic can increase feelings of helplessness and distress. Talk with your adolescent about the difference between acquiring factual information from a trusted news source and watching sensationalized social media posts. If you struggle to limit your exposure to social media about upsetting topics, you may want to share that struggle with your teen to humanize the fact that this is an experience the two of you share. Brainstorm together about how you can find a balance between being informed and taking a break from media.
o “I understand that you want to stay informed and I respect that. Let’s talk about how you can balance staying informed with taking a break from upsetting content for a while each day.”
o “Content about shootings is so upsetting and it can be hard to look away from it. That’s how this content is designed – to keep people watching. I want you to think about if you feel better or worse when you spend time looking at this content.”
Emphasize with your child that TikTok is not a reliable source of news about most topics.
Just as many adults are deeply upset about the epidemic of gun violence, adolescents may feel helpless and distraught. While it’s important to acknowledge these feelings and to give your child space to express them, it is also helpful to support your child in directing their energy towards productive action. That may mean volunteering for an organization or political candidate aligned with a cause that is important to them, joining a peaceful protest, or brainstorming ways to raise money to make a donation to a cause that is aligned with their values and beliefs.
I know that I’m repeating things that I have said many times before but they still feel worth saying. These incidents of tragic violence are taking place at a time when so many people feel exhausted and depleted. It is understandable if you or your child feel overwhelmed and distraught by these senseless acts. Please be gentle with yourself and treat yourself and your child(ren) with kindness and compassion.