How to Talk to Kids About Gun Violence

At least three children and three adults are dead after this country's latest school shooting in Nashville. Your kids may have questions. Here’s how you can share the news appropriately.

Woman kneels near makeshift memorial outside The Covenant School in Nashville

Brendan Smialowki / Getty Images

Sandy Hook. Aurora. San Bernadino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Parkland. Pittsburgh. Gilroy. El Paso. Dayton. Buffalo. Uvalde. Newport News. Denver. It's happened at schools, movie theaters, bars, concerts, festivals, stores, and churches. Nowhere seems to be safe from gun violence. Now another school shooting has taken the lives of at least three elementary school students and three adults in Nashville. Those three children were just 9 years old.

The shooting on March 27 happened at The Covenant School, a Presbyterian school with about 200 students between Pre-K and sixth grade. The rest of the children were escorted from the school holding hands, and taken to a nearby church to be reunited with their anxiously awaiting parents. Police say the shooter was armed with two assault-type rifles and a pistol. Police killed the shooter, who was a former student at the school.

Each time there's a mass shooting we find ourselves having trouble finding the words to explain to our children, yet again, why it happened, and why it continues to happen. So how should you talk about gun violence to your child? We asked the experts to share their best insights.

Assure Your Child That You're Doing Your Best to Keep Them Safe

Kids need to be reminded that you're looking out for them. "Reassuring our children in these turbulent and violent times is a paramount question for parenting," says John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. "Say to your children: 'We will never take you anywhere or put you in any place where there is danger. That is our primary job as parents, to protect you. We will always keep you safe.' That fundamental message of safety is critical to make sure your children hear."

Dr. Mayer says this message is just as important for older kids as it is for our youngest. "Older children need that reassurance just as often and vigorously as younger children," he says. "So, age differences do not matter."

Of course, the truth is we can't guarantee their safety, but Dr. Mayer says parents shouldn't argue that point. "While we as adults may know that is true, bringing in these doubts is not a helpful opinion to convey" to kids, he says.

Don't Let the TV Do the Talking

There will be nonstop coverage of mass shooting events, but you don't want your child to absorb too much of what's being shown there—especially if your child is young.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the more repeated and prolonged exposure to TV and media images the more anxiety this creates," says Eirene Heidelberger, a parenting expert and founder of GIT Mom (Get It Together, Mom!). "Your child's awareness is growing and it's imperative that you explain the basic facts about what happened; not TV or social media. Don't go into gory detail, but don't pretend your child isn't aware that something's amiss in the world."

Make Sure Your Children Understand Gun Safety

Every year, more than 3,000 children and teenagers (ages 0 to 19) in the U.S. die each year due to guns, and 15,000 are injured, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Of those tragedies, 1,881 are homicides, 1,176 are suicides, and 115 are accidental shootings, meaning 4 percent of all child gun deaths are unintentional. Ensuring that any guns in the home are safely secured (not loaded and locked away)—and teaching all children about gun safety—is essential.

"Parents who own guns have a responsibility to teach gun safety, ownership, and the appropriate utility of guns to their children," says Dr. Mayer. "A gun shouldn't just exist in the household and parents assume that children will be OK with it being there and/or know all they should about that weapon. Be a teacher! The biggest failing of parents is assuming that small children do not need education about guns in the house. If you don't become a teacher about what your family's concept or orientation toward guns are then children will make up their own, and these are almost guaranteed to be immature and inaccurate of what your values are about guns and gun ownership."

Make sure your child understands the seriousness of guns—and these key safety rules—Heidelberger says:

  1. Never touch a gun by yourself.
  2. Only mommy and daddy/grownups use guns.
  3. Keep curiosity away by being straightforward and explaining the guns are locked away and they will never be able to crack the lock. Lock down your kid's curiosity!
  4. Seriously explain the differences between real and toy guns and the consequences for real.

Make Your Messaging Age-Appropriate

You won't talk about gun violence the same way with a 5-year-old as you would with a teenager. Scale the conversation based on your child's age and maturity level. "Small children do not need long explanations about the social and psychological ramifications of gun violence erupting in our society," says Dr. Mayer. "Prior to age 12, focus on how you as parents will keep them safe. From 12 to 15 or 16, you can talk about the issues in larger society, how this is wrong and immoral to take another's life and to use guns inappropriately. In older adolescents and young adults, it is important to discuss the social/political and moral issues about gun violence. These age breakdowns follow the different stages of cognitive development in children and young people and when their brain can actually think about the issues."

Let Your Child Share Their Thoughts

Your kids may have opinions, questions, fears—or all of the above. Let them express them. "Start by asking what they've heard and know about the event," Heidelberger suggests. "Let your child talk and listen—I mean really listento them. Think about how you feel after talking through scary situations with someone you trust. You feel safer and more assured, right? By talking about it they'll cope better."

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