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How To Talk To Kids About Mass Shootings & Gun Violence, According To Experts

By Keiko Talley
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As a parent there are plenty of tough conversations you need to have with your child. There are the more typical topics like sex and drugs, which you can pull handy quotes from the speeches your parents might have given you oh so many years ago. Then there are the more difficult topics, like violence. My parents didn’t have to explain to my siblings and I what mass shootings were, or why they were happening. I don’t even remember talking about gun violence, besides being told not to hold your fingers in the shape of a gun because it could be perceived as aggressive. But things are different now, unfortunately, and many parents feel it’s important to know how to talk to children about mass shootings. This year alone there have been at least 268 mass shootings reported, and at least 434 children under 11 years old have been killed by gun violence.

Whether it be a tragic accident in which a child shot and killed their sibling while playing with a gun found in the house, or the recent shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas that killed 31 people and left more than three dozen injured, the upsetting images on television are hard to miss. Watching shooting after shooting be covered endlessly can be emotionally draining for anyone, especially a parent whose first thought will always be: “That could have been my child. That could have been my family.”

I don’t think we have to tell children about everything bad that happens.

After the shooting in Dayton, I looked down at my son, just 1 year old, and watched as he played with his toy lawn mower — oblivious to the dangers that lurked just outside of our front door. I couldn’t help but be relieved that I didn’t have to explain to him what happened just over an hour away. What would I say? Where would I even begin? Filled with questions and concerns, I reached out to David Schonfeld, the Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, for guidance. Much to my surprise, he reassured me that children not directly affected by traumas — meaning no one they know was involved in the violence — typically do not need an explanation about tragic events like shootings.

But, that doesn’t mean our children are completely in the clear just yet.

“If you think about it, an infant isn’t going to know what’s happening and understand it,” Schonfeld explained, “but they will still respond to the distress of a close adult in their life.” Although I know my son wasn’t aware that a 24-year-old took the lives of nine people, including his own sister, he might have noticed mommy crying. This can cause confusion, according to Schonfeld, who explained that parents should take this type of opportunity to be a positive role model and exercise good coping mechanisms. For me, that was telling my son, “Mommy is sad because people got hurt. I am okay though. Let’s go play with your farm puzzle.” It is important to show natural human reaction, but also important to show positive coping tools that your children can pick up.

“I don’t think we have to tell children about everything bad that happens, at any age, but if they’re going to hear about it then I think we should at least explain,” said Schonfeld. As your child gets older, experts say talking about violence and trauma could become more difficult. Your child may not have noticed the radio news report on the recent shooting while you drove them to daycare. But once they get around friends, it might come up in conversation. Schonfeld explained that peer interaction and social media are where a lot of children tend to get their information, and more often than not it can be wrong.

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“If this is something that is in the news and people are talking about it, children will pick up on it,” explained Schonfeld, “And we want them to know that the adults that they trust in their lives — their parents, their teachers — are there if they want to ask about something.”

The best approach is to first ask your child if they heard anything about the violence in question and, if so, what, according to Schonfeld. Once you know what it is that your child knows, Schonfeld suggests parents use simple terms to explain what happened, or correct any wrong information they may have. Reassure your child that they are safe, and that you are there if they need to talk.

Some parents may find it better to shield their children from such graphic news. According to Schonfeld, this method could give off signals that it’s not okay for your children to talk to you about that subject. Kids are looking for someone to listen to them, Schonfeld further explained, not someone to tell them all the right things.

With more mass shootings than the number of days that we have had so far this year, it can seem like a scary world to live in. Adults often struggle with why things happen, and those thoughts could be heightened for a child which creates a difficult task for parents. Maureen Healy, the author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, explained that there is no “cookie-cutter algorithm that can be applied to every parent or lifestyle.” She said being honest with your kids and making sure not to overshare is important for them to feel secure. “Be careful not to increase your child’s stress and focus on the progress being made and protocols at their school which ensure their safety,” said Healy. For example, Healy suggests parents with children in public schools explain the importance of lockdown drills and why your child’s school is working to keep them safe.

After you have explained things to your child, be sure to be on the lookout for any signs that they are not coping well. Healy explains warning signs could include problems sleeping when previously there were none, as well as excessive crying or outbursts with no known trigger. “These are signs a child doesn’t yet know how to handle his or her big emotions, and needs extra support,” said Healy.

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When a reaction doesn’t seem warranted for the news, Schonfeld says it could be due to a different underlying issue. “Sometimes kids and adults will react to some events but they’re not really reacting to the event itself,” he explained, “So if it seems to be a disproportionate reaction, there is probably something else going on.”

For example, if a child is having a strong reaction after the shooting in El Paso, it may not be because of the 22 people killed at Walmart. The recognition of death could be reminding the child about their grandmother who passed away two years ago.

Talking to your children about such heavy topics like mass shootings can be overwhelming. Experts warn parents to be prepared before talking to their children. Collect your thoughts and feelings before you approach your child about theirs. If you or your child are having a hard time, please reach out to your primary doctor or look into other resources for help.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.