There are many difficult conversations to have with your children. There’s the sex talk, the social media talk, and at times, even the divorce talk. Yet, there isn’t a single conversation more difficult, or more heart wrenching, than talking to your children about gun violence.
From the ninety-six Americans killed by guns every day (seven of which are children or teens) to the seemingly endless school shootings, to simple gun safety, this talk takes many different forms. As parents, how do we talk to our children about gun violence?
At Real Mom Daily, we continue to compile hard-won experience. Here’s what we have to date. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have specific questions, would like more information, or have something you feel we should add.
Tailor Your Talk to Your Child’s Age
You’re not going to talk to a teenager the same way you talk to a toddler. This is common sense and true of any type of conversation you and your children have. It’s important to remember when it comes to gun violence, though, that you need to really tailor your message.
According to Dr. Deborah Gilboa, it’s beneficial to keep the explanation short if you’re talking to preschool or kindergarten aged children. They recommend giving a one-sentence story that focuses on the heroes of a particular event. Stay away from trying to over explain everything.
Things are different when your children are elementary school aged. By this time, you can talk a bit more openly about what happened, ways to prevent future tragedies, and some of the issues behind the act of violence. Many family counselors suggest not going into too much detail, and remind us to focus on the people who stepped up as heroes. You don’t have to be as tight-lipped as with toddlers but we still need to remain mindful of their age..
When it comes to adolescents and teenagers, you have more leeway. You can talk honestly about what happened, listen to their reactions and feelings, and proposed ways that your family can help be part of the solution. Again, you’re not going to want to go into all the details, but your older children are better able to process and understand the nuances of individual tragedies.
Let Them Know Their Safety is Priority #1
No matter how old your child is, you should reassure them that their safety is priority number one. This is true across the spectrum, from elementary school children to those that are about to graduate high school.
However, there is an important caveat to letting your children know you’re keeping them safe: don’t lie. While it may be tempting to say, “I will never let you be harmed,” this isn’t always true. One of the reasons school shootings are so terrifying is that they’re out of your control. You can’t be at school with your child. You just can’t.
Rather than offering blanket statements like “I’ll always keep you safe,” say something like “My primary job as your mother is to protect you. I’ll make sure that you’re always protected with me, and I’ll give you the knowledge to keep yourself protected when you’re not with me.”
This level of honesty is easier said than done. What could be harder than admitting to your child that you’re not able to keep them safe? We get it. We’ve been there. Trust us when we tell you that honestly, and making sure they’re equipped with helpful knowledge, is the best route.
Admit You Don’t Know or Have the Answer
This touches on what we just mentioned. Talking to your children about gun violence is a radically honest conversation to have. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to share gory or frightening details with your kids. In fact, absolutely don’t do this!
Practicing radical honesty means talking openly to your children and admitting that you may not have all the answers. It’s natural that your child might ask “how do we stop gun violence?” You can tell them about gun safety, and let your elected officials know how your household feels when it comes to guns, but you can also say “I don’t know, honey.”
You can let them know that you’re as hurt, as confused, and as frightened as they are. In fact, this type of honest moment – a quiet moment of human understanding – will likely go a long way towards making your kids feel better. That seems counterintuitive, we know, but showing them that you’re searching for the same answers they are is a great way to build trust.
Let Your Children Talk
Part of working through any difficult, painful, or traumatic situation involves talking through your feelings. This is as true for your children as it is for you.
While all of the points above will make it easier to talk to your children about gun violence, they’re not all designed to help your children heal. This is an important distinction to make. Yes, your kids need to know that you’ll protect them. Yes, they need to consume that information in an age-appropriate format. They also need to heal.
This means that you should let them talk and pay special attention to what they’re saying. Listen and respond to empathetic statements. This means that you shouldn’t play the superhero. You should listen. Offer support and love rather than a laundry list of suggestions. Let your children get out what they need to get out. This is going to help them more than almost anything else.
Keep the Conversation Going
As difficult as this particular conversation might be, it’s not the end of the dialogue. Keep the conversation going. Let your children know that they can come to you whenever an act of gun violence happens. Let them know that they can come to you whenever any tragedy happens.
This last point is important. Tragedy takes many different forms. While it’s increasingly been school, church, and public event shootings, this isn’t always the case. The recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico are just as tragic as an act of gun violence. So are airline crashes, suicides, or any other type of potentially life-threatening situation your children may see online or on the news.