Give children time and space to talk about their worries and listen closely. Remember, it’s always best for children to first hear the news from a trusted adult.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | July 14, 2022 | 2 min read
By Carol Vidal, MD, PhD, Johns Hopkins Medicine
Between mass shootings in public spaces, including K-12 schools and festive parades, and unrelenting gun deaths in some cities, the reality of gun violence is present, unpredictable, upsetting, and frightening. Parents may struggle to know how to talk to children about gun violence.
For some children, gun violence is ever-present. The first time I came to that realization was at my outpatient clinic rotation during fellowship. I was treating a lively and bright six-year-old from West Baltimore, Maryland, for ADHD. He happily engaged during the sessions, talking about school and home. It wasn’t until a year later when his symptoms were minimally improving that I became more aware of his reality. He had, among many experiences, witnessed a police raid and killings in his neighborhood. One body remained on a street near his house for days after being gunned down because a major blizzard prevented city workers from collecting it.
Talking to children about gun violence isn’t easy. Here are some suggestions:
1. If the event is widely covered by the media and/or the child is of school age, chances are that they’ll hear about it. It’s best if they hear it first from a trusted adult.
2. Model a positive way to manage emotions so that a child’s experience of the event is less traumatic.
3. Listen and be responsive to create a supportive space. Let the child know that it’s ok to tell you how they’re feeling and that any feeling is acceptable. Try not to tell them to not be worried. Instead, you can say, “I can see that you’re worried.”
4. Limit media exposure to news coverage. This is important for younger children as repetition of the events on TV, radio, and/or social media can make the event seem ongoing. Children who believe bad events are temporary recover more quickly.
5. You don’t need to volunteer information or force children to talk if they’re not ready. Instead, take cues from them. Be brief and clear when answering questions, and be honest. It’s ok to repeat information as they may ask many times. This also serves as a chance to correct misinformation.
6. Use words children can understand at their age.
7. Continuing routines and doing ordinary things will reassure children that life will be normal again. For example, maintaining regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
8. Talk to children about community recovery. Let them know the families of the victims are getting help. Encourage them to volunteer and/or do something for someone else.
Gun violence doesn’t have to become an accepted norm in our society, and knowing that we can all take steps to make our communities safer can give young people a sense of purpose and help them with recovery.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.