Children trust parents and other adults to keep them safe, but it can be difficult to maintain that trust when the world can turn deadly in an instant.
As a parent, I ran into this two weeks ago. After my teenage kid came in to tell me they had learned of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, I threw up my hands. I had nothing left to say on the topic and my kid already knows where I stand. However, a deeper part of me knew I was not responding as well as I should. I hadn’t created a space for a conversation.
I decided to research what I should have done and how to do it better next time. This is what I found:
Reassure children that they are safe. Encourage empathy, kids can easily become burned out watching “entertaining” videos of tragedies large and small that circulate online. Remind them they can be worried, sad, scared or overwhelmed and that all those feelings are valid.
Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing them appropriately. Ask children what their questions are before injecting your parental opinions.
Don’t worry about knowing the perfect thing to say – there is no answer that will make everything okay. Listen to their concerns and thoughts, answer their questions with simple, direct and honest responses, and provide appropriate reassurance and support.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Focus on the things that can be controlled, like being aware of where trusted adults are in crowded settings or following school safety guidelines.
Although it is common for everyone to feel anger, remind kids that terrorists and those that commit acts of mass violence do not represent a particular racial, ethnic, religious or other group.
Concentrate on what can be done now to help those most directly affected and to promote safety, tolerance and acceptance in local communities.
Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Young children may communicate their fears through play or drawings. Elementary school children will use a combination of play and talking to express themselves.
Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Remind them that their choices and decisions can help make them safer.
Above all, If you think more help is needed, don’t wait. Take advantage of support (pediatricians, mental health counselors or members of the clergy) whenever you think it will be beneficial.
STARTING THE CONVO
How do you feel about what you know and have heard about gun violence and mass shootings?
What else do you want to know?
Do you know people who have different opinions on gun violence?
Where do you think the problem begins?
What do you think should be done to keep people safe from gun violence?
Is it important to protect people’s right to own guns?
Why do you think there are more mass shootings than there used to be?
What can we do to get our government leaders to act on preventing mass shootings?
How do gun rights advocates make successful arguments that guns should not be regulated more than they already are?
What prevents Congress from passing legislation to try to prevent mass shootings?
What can we do to make our local community safer?
IDEAS FOR TAKING ACTION
1. Write a letter to your members of Congress (or to the school or local newspaper) that conveys your position about gun violence and what you think should be done about it.
2. Educate others by sharing information on social media, engaging in personal conversations or organizing an educational forum or debate in school.
3. Join with or hold a fundraiser to support gun violence prevention advocacy organizations such as Newtown Action Alliance, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand.