How to talk to children about gun violence

Recent news of yet another school shooting has left many parents and caregivers asking how it is best to discuss gun violence with young children.

Last year alone, there were 51 school shootings that resulted in injury or death, according to Education Week, which began tracking such incidents in 2018. The massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead — most of them children — highlighted the urgency of addressing gun violence and death with young children.

While there is no right age to start having these conversations preemptively, pediatric psychologist Jeff Shahidullah said children do absorb a lot of information from their surroundings and may know more about what is happening elsewhere than you think. To start a conversation, focus on finding out what they do know about school shootings or other violence in the news and how that makes them feel, he said. “Kids are always listening. They hear what caregivers and adult siblings and classmates are talking about,” Shahidullah said.

Watch the full conversation in the player above.

By asking a child what they know or have heard, parents or caregivers can then determine the scope of the discussion and whether there are any inaccuracies in the child’s understanding. It also provides caregivers an opportunity to validate the child’s feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts in the future, Shahidullah said. Because younger kids may believe what happens to other people elsewhere can easily happen to them, it is important to provide perspective as well, he said. “It’s important to not minimize or dismiss their concerns or feelings since that can make them feel like they’re not valid and that they just need to suppress them and keep them to themselves in the future,” but, Shahidullah said in providing comfort, it’s best to avoid black-and-white answers. He says caregivers can opt for a more balanced approach with language like “it’s extremely unlikely that anything like that will ever happen to you.”

Conveying nuance to children can be incredibly helpful in the future as life inevitably becomes more complicated. For young learners, it can be challenging to face the possibility of something bad happening, even if it is unlikely. These concerns can compound into conversations about death, dying and suicide. Shahidullah recommends talking about what he calls the “worry brain” to help children process the sometimes-overwhelming emotions that can arise. He says caregivers can validate strong emotions by explaining, “It’s normal for our worry brains to still be a bit worried about something bad happening, because that’s what worry brains do. They want us to be safe and not caught off guard if something dangerous did happen.”

He goes on to explain that acknowledging fear and worry as normal parts of life is key for teaching kids that they can help to accept a strong emotion by naming it. “Treating our difficult, scary thoughts — like suicide, like death and dying — just as we do any other thoughts teaches the kids that we can notice that we’re having the thought, but we don’t have to give any special power or control to the thought,” Shahidullah said.

Caregivers of children with firsthand experience dealing with gun violence or deaths related to gun violence can apply these same concepts, but it is essential to tailor your language and delivery based on the context and circumstances of your child, Shahidullah said.

For the adults taking on the challenging job of having these conversations, Shahidullah says you can also apply these concepts in your own lives and “connecting to a trusted peer group … is one of the best protective factors that can help parents buffer against stress.”