How to Talk to Kids About Mass Shootings

What do you say when your child asks you why some people are killing other people?

Trying to sort out the right answers to this very difficult question can lead to serious anxiety for adults. Parents strain to find the right way to explain the complexities and difficult truths of mass shootings — when often there is no adequate explanation, at least for children.

Luckily, the “why” may not be the most important aspect of the conversation. Take a moment to reflect on why you — Mom, Dad, Aunt, or Grandpa — feel the need to talk with your child about such events. Most likely you want to know how these events are impacting your children rather than making sure they’re well-informed about current events.

Think about a typical ‘boo boo.’ Consider what happens when your kids take a hard tumble at the playground. You walk over, check out the situation, probably ask if they are OK. You offer a couple of soothing words. Then, unless a trip to the ER is needed, you tell your children they are all right. You don’t overdo it. You might sit with them for a few minutes, maybe head home early to clean off the wound and put a bandage on it.

Keep the playground scenario in mind for this difficult conversation about guns or shootings. You are going to do nearly the exact same thing. As a parent, you know your unique child better than anyone.

So at a time that seems appropriate, simply bring it up. Maybe the news is on and that’s a natural segue. Or perhaps your child mentions it. Don’t worry about the set up; just jump in with a straightforward question. "So what do you think about that shooting in Texas?" you might ask (or wherever it was).

Related: Pastors Address Church Shooting: 'We Must Be More Vigilant'

Use the open-ended approach. While it isn’t cold, a simple, open-ended question isn’t overwrought with emotion. It will work well for the kid who isn’t particularly upset — and for the child whose reaction may be more intense.

Another reason to take a relaxed approach to the discussion is that you are signaling to your children that their world is still safe. Many children are not going to be intensely affected by something that did not directly impact their lives. This is assuming they are spared an overdose of news coverage, which is not healthy for any child — or any adult, for that matter.

This is another chance to validate their emotions as you talk with them about how frustrating it is that we don’t understand why atrocities happen.

Now listen to what they say and empathize with them. Validate their perspective. For example, if your children say, "That is so sad," you then say, "Yes, it really is heartbreaking."

You’re handling this is in a healthy way by calmly approaching the topic while also validating your children's feelings. If they don’t have much to say, that’s fine as well. No need to force emotions they aren’t experiencing. Children should not be expected to process every tragedy that makes the news. If a few just breeze on by, their world is so much the better.

If the dreaded "why" questions come up, that’s fine. Go ahead and share that you don’t really understand the "why" yourself. This is another chance to validate their emotions as you talk with them about how frustrating it is that we don’t understand why atrocities happen.

Related: Guns Save Lives, but Media Largely Ignore

Talk strategy with older kids. If you have a teen or maybe a particularly insightful 10-year-old who is really interested in the issues, you might further discuss the various perspectives on guns. Remember that if your goal is to see how your child is doing emotionally, this is not the time for a philosophical discussion about the Second Amendment or mental health disorders. However, those conversations are certainly relevant and appropriate for families to have when they are ready for them or when the parents feel it's appropriate.

To close out the conversation, consider shifting the talk to providing reassurance and a sense of safety to your young person. Talk about how many people devote their lives to keeping others safe. Mention strategies that keep people safe in their lives. Maybe recount safety measures from your local school, perhaps even ones that make their eyes roll a bit. Bring the conversation back to your children's life and their world.

Related: Kids Need to Know About Guns and Gun Safety

Once you get an idea of how your children are doing and have provided a little reassurance, much like dusting them off after the playground tumble — you are finished and ready to get on with all the other stressful, rewarding and maddening details of family life.

Reach out to experts if needed. If your child seems to really be struggling, continue to check in with him or her, listen and validate the concerns. Encourage your child to share his feelings with other supportive adults in his life.

If he doesn't seem his old self in a few weeks, consider checking in with a professional counselor.

This article by Jill Kaufmann, a family therapist in Bend, Oregon, originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated to reflect recent events.

Last Modified: November 8, 2017, 6:42 am

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