Everything You Need to Know About Talking to Kids About Gun Violence

Updated 05/21/18

On average, one school shooting has occurred in the U.S. every week this year. The most recent happened at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, just one day before the school's class of 2018 was set to graduate, CNN reports. It was the twenty-second school shooting in the U.S. this year. Unfortunately, it seems that discussing the topic of gun violence with children is now unavoidable. "We often try to shield our kids from the scary things that happen in this world, but [after the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] it was hard to do this because there was so much discussion and so many questions on their part," says Stephanie Taylor Jackson, a mom of two from Dallas, Texas.

Anyone with children can attest that these tough conversations are becoming difficult to ignore. "It's unfortunate that we live in a culture where we have to educate our kids on gun violence, but it's essential to their safety," Chrissy Powers, a mom from California, shares. She's already preparing to teach her boys about gun violence even though they're still too young to fully comprehend the issue.

With gun violence consistently making headlines, especially following the most recent tragedy in Sante Fe and powerful demonstrations earlier this year at the March for Our Lives, we spoke with Azmaira Maker, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, adolescents, and families, to learn how best to answer the difficult questions posed by children on the subject. According to her, the key to a meaningful and appropriate conversation when talking to kids about gun violence is keeping the dialogue reassuring and hopeful. Keep reading for her suggestions on how to start the discussion and respond to the toughest questions you might be asked.

How to Begin

Before talking to kids about gun violence, you'll want to consider the timing of the discussion and the environment you're in. "Ask in a moment of quiet, with few distractions and timelines," says Maker. "If it is a rushed conversation or with too many people or distractions, your child is less likely to pay attention or process the conversation at a deeper emotional and cognitive level," she explains.

After finding the right moment, ask your child if they have heard or seen anything about gun violence. If they say that they have, Azmaira suggests inviting them to share the details with you. "You can ask simple questions to facilitate the conversation, such as, 'Where did you hear/see this?' 'Who told you that?' 'What else do you know?' 'How do you feel about it?' 'Do you have questions about it?'" she explains. If your child responds that they haven't heard about this, you can tell them you want to share some important information. Maker suggests saying that they might hear things on the playground or at school, and you don't want them to be surprised or scared.

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How to Make a Child Feel Safe

"Awareness, protection, and action are three important messages we want to convey repeatedly to a child to make them feel safe," Maker states. Begin by letting a child know that you are aware of how they are feeling. You can say, "I understand you are worried," "I wonder if you are scared," or "It sounds as if you are angry." Maker explains that statements like these validate a child's experience, which is essential for making them feel safe.

Next, let children know that adults are doing their best to protect them. "Inform them in specific ways about how adults are protecting children in your community," Maker says. She suggests showing kids the marches, petitions, and speeches about gun control so they can see all the things people are doing to keep them safe.

Finally, take on the position of a positive role model. "Show them the actions you are taking to keep them safe," says Maker. You can volunteer at their school, attend local meetings on gun violence, or reach out to local officials. "Actions speak louder than words, and when children witness adults being proactive about safety, they will feel safer," she explains.

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How to Respond to Questions

Keeping reassurance and hopefulness in mind, you can thoughtfully answer the questions a child may ask you about gun violence. Here are a few questions children may ask and how Maker suggests you respond.

Can it happen at my school?

"It is important to assure younger children that they are safe at school and at home to minimize the risk for separation and school anxiety," Maker says. You can tell them that shootings don't happen every day and that their school is working to keep them safe. Pointing out guards, gates, or security checks that might be present on their campus can be helpful, too. When it comes to older kids, Maker says you can be more transparent. "You can empower your teenager by encouraging them to be involved with safety campus procedures, walk-outs, and an immediate safety plan if they are worried about someone in particular. … Providing your teens with an action plan can be highly empowering and reassuring," she says.

Why don't they stop giving guns to people?

"This is a complicated question, and your answer probably needs to be geared differently based on the developmental age and cognition of the child," Maker says. You can tell younger kids that adults are doing their best to implement new laws by saying something like, "We are working on it, and it is an important issue," according to Maker. For an older child or teenager, Maker believes this is an appropriate time to introduce historical information, including what the Constitution says about guns, existing laws, and the current gun debate. "This will facilitate a deeper understanding by your teen and will also empower your teen to enter the debate and take positive action."

Why would someone do this?

Maker suggests providing a factual, research-based answer to a question like this. "It is important to keep the tone and content neutral and emotionally positive and to not create stereotypes and generalizations about any particular group," she says. It's difficult to explain to a child why a person commits an act of violence when most adults can't comprehend it either. "An important message to send to your child is that the individual clearly struggled, and we may not know exactly what led him/her to the shooting," says Maker.

Why do people want guns if they're not the police?

Maker says you can remind young children that guns are meant to be used for protection, not for violence. For older children and teenagers, you can provide more facts about the gun control debate or even explain how other countries handle gun control. "[This] will empower them and allow them to formulate well-thought-out opinions and explanations for themselves with your guidance."

Why don't we stop it?

As with the above questions, the key message to focus on is that adults are doing the best they can and are putting in great effort to stop school shootings and protect kids from gun violence. "Assure them that we will not give up, that adults are paying close attention, and we are going to remain strong in our work to stop shootings. Invite them to join you in this work, as once again, empowering your teenager to positive action is a powerful way to break the cycle of violence," Maker says. 

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While talking to kids about gun violence is difficult, certain questions are unavoidable. With the right resources and state of mind, it can be a powerful experience for both you and the young people in your lives. 

This post was originally published on March 28, 2018, and has since been updated.

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