Sandy Hook. Aurora. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Parkland, Florida. At schools, movie theaters, bars, concerts, churches.
Each time there's a mass shooting—and it seems to be happening now more than ever—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.
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 Dr. John Mayer, 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.
There will be nonstop coverage of events like the Sutherland Springs shooting, but you don't want your child to absorb too much of what's being shown there—especially if your child is younger.
"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."
Nearly 1,300 children in the U.S. die each year due to guns, and 5,790 are injured, with 21 percent of those classified as accidental shootings. 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," Dr. Mayer says. "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 the 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:
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," Dr. Mayer says. "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."
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 listen—to 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."
There's a reason these stories dominate the headlines—because they're still big news when they happen. "You should point out that these occurrences are still rare and not a part of daily living," Dr. Mayer says. "Because we hear news from places far away in today's world, these incidents seem closer to us than ever before."