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How to Talk to Kids About Shootings and Gun Violence

It’s been about a year since we covered How to Talk To Kids About Terrorism, and sadly, the topic is still as timely as ever. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
December 18, 2015
Episode #094

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In fact, between Oregon, Paris, and San Bernadino, it’s time to add how to talk about gun violence to our parenting repertoire. I don’t claim to have all the answers—no one does, but here are eight tips to answer kids’ tough questions.

A couple of weeks ago, my 7-year-old had an anonymous threat of gun violence directed at his school district. Nothing came of the threat, and the teachers, school administrators, and authorities reacted swiftly and bravely. But getting emails with FBI updates and seeing uniformed police officers guarding the one not-locked-down entrance to his elementary school isn’t how I envisioned my son’s first grade year.

Needless to say, he and I have done some talking. And the hardest part of the conversation wasn’t how to bring it up or how to help him feel safe (see How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism for those), but rather, how to handle the tough questions. Kids are smart—they’re pint-sized philosophers trying to wrap their heads around all the good and bad that comes with this world. Gun violence is hard to explain no matter their age, but for younger kids in particular, they still want a concrete answer.

So let’s tackle two of the most common questions, which (parents, lucky us) are also the hardest to answer:

“Why?”

The first is, “why?” Why would someone bring a gun to a concert? Why would someone shoot people at their holiday party? Why would someone shoot kids and teachers?

Answer #1: It’s OK to say you don’t know. Why indeed? It’s hard to answer an unanswerable question. Kids (and most adults) don’t like to acknowledge that tragedy can strike innocent people and that the world isn’t fair. So it’s OK to say, “We don’t know why. We don’t know what they were thinking. It’s wrong and not fair that they hurt people and made a lot of other people scared.”

Answer #2: “Look for the helpers.” We don’t know why bad things happen, but we do know what happens in response. To take a page from Harold S. Kushner’s classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (a helpful read if you’re struggling with existential questions of your own), when tragedy strikes, people come from all corners to help.  Tragedies like mass murders are some of the worst things that can happen; however, in response to such evil comes a tide of good: strangers open their doors to each other, communities come together, and individuals help in a million ways, from donations to advocacy to donating blood. Stress to your child how many people pitch in after catastrophe and work to prevent future tragedy. The “why?” may not be answered, but the “then what?” is crystal clear.

End your answer with concrete reassurance of safety and prevention. You can say, “So many people are working to make sure we stay safe. Let’s think of all the people we know who are helping.” Here, collaborate with your child. Let her think of all the people who keep her safe every day: you, grandparents, teachers, the principal, friends’ parents, a beloved babysitter, the police, firefighters. Add whomever your child wants to the list.  If he wants to add his teddy bear or the family dog, go for it.

Answer #3: Try not to blame mental illness. With tragedy, we want a reason. We want to be able to answer, “why?" But explaining that a shooter was mentally ill equates mental illness and violence, which increases stigma and, for the millions of people struggling with mental illness, reduces a willingness to speak up and get help. In a time when almost every family knows someone struggling with mental illness, you don’t want kids wrongly equating a school shooter with Uncle Rick’s depression or being afraid of the kid with autism down the block.  

In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, plus most acts of gun violence are committed by individuals without mental illness. So instead, say the person had a lot of problems and didn’t know how to solve them without violence. Or, if a media report invokes a mental illness, say, ”Most people with that illness are safe and would never shoot anyone, just like you and I would never shoot anyone.”  

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