Expert Corner: How Should I Talk To My Kids About Gun Violence?
In the wake of ongoing gun violence across the country, many parents are unsure of how to speak to their children. Reports of shootings within schools, places of worship, and public spaces are occurring frequently. Finding time and space to process them can be difficult. Dr. Melissa Dackis, Clinical Psychologist, shares guidelines for these conversations.
Understand your own reactions. As the guidance goes, always put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Take time to understand your own reactions to what happened before speaking to your child. Notice how you are feeling. Observe and label your emotions. Notice how strong they are and what happens to them over time. Observe the thoughts and urges that arise when you think about what happened. Allow yourself to feel these emotions and acknowledge why they make sense given what has happened. Children, especially young children, often pick up on how parents are feeling. If you are feeling overwhelmed or unable to manage your emotions, consider first using some of your own coping strategies. One strategy that many parents find helpful is to “cope ahead” for the discussion. First, imagine any difficulties that may arise during the conversation. Then practice ways of managing these reactions so that you feel more confident.
Start the conversation. When fear comes up, the tendency is often to push the scary thing away or avoid it altogether. It is so important for parents to be aware of this urge when it comes to talking about gun violence with children. Most children and teenagers will have already heard bits and pieces about what happened from friends, school, or media outlets. Violence such as school shootings often prompts larger school-wide discussions and regular drills. Parents may be tempted not to say anything about what happened because of fears of upsetting children or making it worse. It is almost always more helpful to broach the subject in a developmentally appropriate way than to ignore it. Below are some guidelines for starting the conversation depending on the age of the child:
- For young children, communicate what happened briefly. You can let them know that someone hurt other people. Express how you feel about it (e.g. sad, fearful, etc.), and reassure them that you will do everything you can to make sure they are safe. Be open to any questions that they have about what happened and limit providing more detail than is necessary. Try not to belabor the discussion and move on once they communicate that they are ready.
- For older children and teenagers, start by asking them what they know about what happened or what they have heard. This is a good opportunity to understand how they are feeling and to clarify any misinformation. Allow them to ask you questions and express their concerns. This is also a chance to talk about safety planning as a family if a crisis occurs.
Be mindful of media exposure. Following a traumatic event, many people want to find out as much information as possible. Yet, this may lead to unnecessary exposure to violent images and details. Excessive media coverage following violence is associated with more anxiety and stress. Be mindful of how often the news is on at home and whether your child has access to images and online information that may be distressing. It may also be helpful to speak to your children about taking breaks from social media or limiting access to content related to the shooting.
Foster resiliency. Maintaining routines is extremely important for children and parents following a distressing event. After something shocking and unthinkable happens, it may be disorienting to return to a regular routine. Continue to do fun things as a family even though you may also be grieving or feeling scared. With safety considerations in mind, model to your child that you can both feel these emotions about what happened and continue to live your life. Try to maintain the same types of rules and expectations at home and also leave room to continue to make space for difficult emotions.
Notice changes that stick around. Feelings of sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and helplessness are common after community violence. You may observe that your child:
- Has more difficulty sleeping
- Is more clingy than usual
- Expresses fears about the violence occurring again
- Is tearful
Many of these reactions are typical. However, if they continue for weeks or months, or if they begin to impact your child’s functioning and cause problems, it is important to seek help. If you notice any of the below symptoms or changes, consider reaching out to a mental health professional:
- Lasting changes in sleep or eating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent stomach or headaches
- Significant sadness or irritability
- Excessive anxiety
- Difficulty shifting focus away from fears about the event
- Avoidance of certain situations or places (e.g. school, public places) due to fears of violence.
Handspring Can Help
At Handspring, we offer evidence-based treatment for trauma and anxiety. If your child’s distress persists, reach out to book a free consult call today.