Psychologist’s advice on how to speak with children about gun violence

Once again, parents and caregivers around the country are considering how they want to talk to children about gun violence following the mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. For an important perspective on that, Amna Nawaz spoke with Dr. Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    First lady Dr. Jill Biden is attending a vigil in Nashville tonight to honor and remember the six people killed in a mass shooting at the Covenant School earlier this week. It's part of a citywide candlelight vigil. Singers Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, and Ketch Secor are performing as part of the event.

    Once again, parents and caregivers around the country are considering how they want to talk to children about this attack and gun violence.

    Some important perspective on all of that now from Dr. Tori Cordiano. She's a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents who practices in Ohio.

    Dr. Cordiano, welcome and thanks for joining us.

    As you know, after each one of these shootings, especially in schools, especially when children are killed, the question comes up, how should parents and caregivers talk to kids, if they should talk to kids about it? What would you say to that? And how is the conversation different depending on how old the children are?

    Dr. Tori Cordiano, Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls: So, this is largely driven by a child's age and their developmental level.

    I think, with younger children, you can really consider how much access they will have to this news. And they may not actually be aware of it. So you may not need to have this conversation with them.

    With older elementary school children, if you feel that they are likely to hear about it from friends or from teachers, you will want to bring the conversation up. And I always like the idea of starting with, what have you heard about what happened in Nashville? And if they haven't heard anything, or if you have a sense that they haven't heard anything, you can start with, I want to tell you about something that happened in Nashville.

    With older children, you can expect that if they haven't already heard about it, they will hear about it in school. And so you will want to have that conversation with them at the outset, so that they can process it with you and they're not blindsided by it.

    It's also really helpful to start with what they have heard and then ask about what questions they have. The goal is to give them manageable, clear information, but to not inundate them with the details that can be overwhelming or scary.

    You want to, as parents and caregivers, have a space where you can process this, where you can think about it, talk about it with other people, have your own place to process your feelings about it. Of course, you may get emotional about it when you're talking with your children, and that is OK. It is emotional. It's sad, it's scary, it's angering.

    But you want to also have your own space separate from them where you can really process your own feelings about it, so that your conversation with them can focus on caring for them in that moment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Cordiano, as you know, mass shootings are now commonplace in America.

    According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 130 so far this year alone. And they don't even comprise the majority of gun violence in America, which we know disproportionately impacts children of color. Is there a cumulative toll with that kind of exposure to violence that you worry about in children?

  • Dr. Tori Cordiano:


    There's a cumulative tool that comes out in the form of trauma. And some of this, we may not be seeing right away. We may be seeing the generational effects of this.

    We may be seeing this over the long term. But, certainly, when children are exposed to violence, when it is happening around them, when it is part of their daily experience, when they have survived these attacks, or even if they are — just this is part of their reality, that they are hearing about these and worrying about these, that can certainly take a toll and for some children can lead to trauma and more mental health issues down the line.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We know this generation of children are regularly put through lockdown drills, right, phrased differently depending on their age in school.

    But every generation, you hear this, has some version of a drill, or they had nuclear attack drills for some generations, depending on where you live. There are tornado drills. There's fire drills. Are these different in some way?

  • Dr. Tori Cordiano:

    They are.

    And it really depends on the nature of the drill and how much they simulate an actual attack, an active shooter attack. There is good research being done on this, which is really important, because we want to know, from large samples of children, what this experience is like for them. We want to balance the best ways to keep them safe with not putting them in traumatic experiences.

    So there is research being done on how best to conduct these drills if they are going to happen, so that they don't create more trauma for children and more difficult experiences.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    During those conversations with children, they are likely to ask, could it ever happen in my school or my church or my neighborhood or to me?

    And I will tell you, the impulse among parents is to lie and say, it will never happen to you. How do you suggest parents handle that?

  • Dr. Tori Cordiano:

    Yes, this is, again, where it's very important for parents to be able to have their own place to process feelings about this, because, of course, parents' instinct is to keep their kids safe and want them to feel safe.

    And our job as parents is to be the steady, study presents. So, depending on the nature of the children's questions, depending on their age, their developmental level, you can remind them of the things that keep them safe in their school and the adults that keep them safe, and remind them that they can always talk with you and other trusted adults in their lives about questions that they have or scary feelings that they have in the wake of these events.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Tori Cordiano, clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, thank you for joining us.

  • Dr. Tori Cordiano:

    Thank you.

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