How to talk to kids about gun violence

Gun violence photo illustration
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Gun violence in America is a major concern. New data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that while the overall national firearm homicide rate dropped from 2021 to 2022, it remains higher than it was in 2019. As a mom raising children in Washington, D.C., it’s been impossible to shield them from this epidemic of brutality.

In just the last year and a half, my 13-year-old daughter called me frantically asking me to pick her up from school due to a gun threat. Not long after that, it was me having to call to stop her from going on a planned trip to Target because there had been gunfire outside a nearby school. There was also a shooting at an exclusive private school that two of my daughter’s friends attend, and another shooting took place on a residential block less than a mile away from where we live. My older daughter and parents were at a suburban mall when a shooting broke out, and two young kids were shot on a city bus that’s on the same line my younger child takes to get home from school.

Fortunately, no one I know or love has been struck down by gun violence. That is probably due, in part, because the privilege my skin color and solid middle-class income provide. As the CDC report notes, Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. Researchers attribute the rate to a myriad factors, including “economic and social stressors and disruptions in health and emergency services related to longstanding systemic inequities (such as employment or housing), which were worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Like many parents, I am at a loss when it comes to gun violence. How can I acknowledge the danger my children face every time they step outside or walk into school without making them afraid to leave the house? I can’t ignore this reality, but I don’t want them to be crippled with fear either. Above all, I want my children to know what to do to keep themselves safe if they find themselves in danger, yet I am concerned about their mental health too.

According to clinical psychologist Ann Hazzard, co-author of Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence, “these are undeniably tough conversations" for parents to initiate. “It is a delicate balancing act to provide some reassurance without minimizing the real and tragic toll of gun violence,” she adds. Here’s what she and other experts recommend.

When to start a conversation around gun violence — and why it’s important

“Parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about firearms,” and this discussion should start early, Dr. Sandra McKay, a pediatrician with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, tells Yahoo Life.

Hazzard emphasizes that parents should not ignore the problem of gun violence. “While some parents wish their children could remain ‘innocent’ and unaware of society’s problems,” she notes, she doesn’t “believe this is realistic or healthy.” Indeed, Dr. James Dodington, a Yale Medicine pediatric emergency medicine doctor with a focus on injury prevention, says that “school-age children are likely to hear about violence through media and other classmates.”

How parents talk to their children about gun violence depends on their age and level of readiness. For children under 12, McKay says the “focus should be on safety,” including discussing with children why they have active shooter drills at school and telling them to never touch a gun. While it’s “OK to start discussions with your child about the larger implications to society” when they are under 12, McKay says that “you want to make sure that your child is developmentally ready to handle those kinds of conversations.” Children over 12 are likely ready to have discussions that move beyond safety.

Hazzard says that because guns are often glorified in the media, some children become particularly fascinated by guns. When this happens, it’s “important for parents to counter the notion that it’s ‘cool’ to have or use a gun” and explain the dangers. Parents should also “acknowledge that it’s scary to hear about or experience gun violence,” she adds.

How to reassure children

While parents should be up front about the risks guns pose, they should offer reassurance to help offset any anxiety kids might have.

“While you cannot guarantee that nothing will ever happen, you can express that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe and that the likelihood of anything happening is very small," Dr. Ashley Zucker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente, says.

Hazzard recommends that parents let children know about school or gun safety advocacy efforts. Another way parents can provide reassurance is “to empower children by involving them in advocacy efforts such as writing a letter to their congressional representative or attending a rally for sensible gun laws,” she adds.

McKay suggests reviewing safety plans with kids to help them reduce any risk and feel better prepared. “When kids know what the plan is, should something happen. ... Being prepared can give them a sense of some control over the unknown,” she says.

However, it’s also important to not minimize the real threat of gun violence. “Providing reassurance should not prevent us from simultaneously recognizing the trauma resulting from gun violence and taking action to reduce it,” Hazzard says.

How to help children who are anxious about gun violence

While some children can strike a healthy balance between coping with the threat of gun violence and going about their lives normally, others have increased anxiety, says Hazzard. If children seem overly anxious, Zucker suggests that parents validate their children’s fears and tell them that “it’s normal for us as humans to worry about bad things happening because our brains want us to be prepared and safe.”

Hazzard recommends teaching these children strategies — such as “deep breathing, snuggling with a pet or favorite cuddly object or visualizing a safe place, positive memory or situation in which the child mastered something scary” — to ‘turn down the volume’ on emotions that feel overwhelming.” Zucker adds that encouraging children to talk about their fears can help children “take back control” of their thoughts.

For some children, this may not be enough. “If your child is having trouble sleeping [or] eating, or struggling at home or school, it may be time to seek professional help,” advises Zucker.

What to do if a child has been affected by gun violence

Because gun violence is ubiquitous in America, many children already live in communities affected by it and many others will see their communities impacted in the future. “If something has happened in your community or to your child, it’s really important to open the door to a conversation about it,” says Zucker. She advises parents to ask children what they know about what happened, if they’d like to talk about it and how it makes them feel. If a child doesn’t seem ready to talk, that’s OK. “Don’t pressure them,” says Zucker. “Let them know if and when they are ready to talk, you are there for them.”

If a child is more directly affected, McKay recommends contacting the child’s pediatrician and school. “It is important to continue to follow up with children after traumatic events, and provide long-term interventions, including support groups and therapies. Recovery from an event can take time, and it is imperative to mobilize resources for families,” she says.

Hazzard emphasizes that “parents need to support children who are grieving because someone close to them was injured or killed by a firearm,” and not minimize or ignore their feelings.

Zucker acknowledges that it’s not just children who may be anxious about gun violence; parents may have a hard time dealing with the threat of gun violence as well. “The same recommendations apply in terms of acknowledging our fears, naming them and also taking control by making plans and finding reassurance for ourselves,” she says. “It’s also important to be open and honest with your kids — but if your anxiety is impairing your own ability to function, it’s important to seek help for yourself too.”