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How to Talk to Kids About Mass Shootings
Stay calm, keep it simple, and make them feel safe.
*Edited to add: I published this newsletter immediately after the Uvalde massacre, and I make references to it throughout the post, but the advice here has become relevant over and over again.*
I don’t normally share two free newsletters in two days, but I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past 15 hours about how to talk to kids about what happened in Uvalde, and I want to share some thoughts. (Please note, too, that I can only drop everything to do things like this because of my paid subscribers — thank you, all of you.)
1. Consider your kids and what they can (and can’t) handle.
As a parent, you know your children best, and you should follow your instincts. Last night, when I learned of the news, I considered whether to tell both of my kids about it. My 7-year-old daughter was having a rough and emotional night, and she’s often pretty anxious before bedtime, so I knew it was not going to be wise to share the news, at least not right then; it would cause her distress and interfere with her ability to sleep. Plus, I feel reasonably certain that her friends won’t be talking about it at school today. (However, I will be sure to check in with her after school to see if there’s anything she’s been hearing about that she wants to talk about. And maybe, at some point, I’ll bring up what happened.)
My 11-year-old was another story. I was worried his friends might talk about what happened at school today, and I wanted him to give him a chance to process the news with me first. So I decided to talk to him about it.
2. Stay calm and matter-of-fact.
If you decide to talk to your kids about what happened, try to stay as calm as you can. (This is harder said than done, I know.) Kids pick up on our emotions, and if we seem terrified and upset, our kids will become terrified and upset, too. As Barnard child psychologist Tovah Klein told me for a story I wrote a while ago for Slate on talking to kids about difficult things: “Find ways to exhale and take care of yourself so that the anxiety doesn’t overwhelm you, because your children are sponges, and, regardless of age, they’re feeling your anxiety and reading your anxiety — and we really do owe it to them to manage that so that we can help them.”
In my case, I said something like this to my 11-year-old: “Something happened today that I want to tell you about, in case you hear about it tomorrow.” And then, briefly, I told him the facts of what happened: That a teenager went into a school in Texas with guns and shot and killed some students and teachers, and that it was very sad and scary. (It’s fine to tell your kids that you’re sad and upset, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with your emotions, either.)
3. Find ways to reassure your kids and make them feel safe.
When kids are scared, they need to know they are safe, and that we will protect them. For me, this is the hardest part about talking to my kids about school shootings, because deep down I know my kids aren’t safe — that this could happen to them, too. But we have to find ways to reassure them, as uncertain as we feel. How you do this depends on your own situation and community. With my son, I stressed that school shootings like this are extremely rare. They’re not nearly rare enough, of course! But statistically speaking, a school shooting is unlikely to happen at any one school, and this is something kids should know, because they can be black-and-white thinkers and assume that if it happened to one school, it will happen to theirs.
Also, because we live in New York, I told my son that, compared with Texas, we have more gun laws in our state that help prevent shootings like this. (I’m sorry, parents in Texas and in other gun-lax states, as I know you cannot say this. Here’s a handy Wikipedia page I found that lists gun laws by state, although I’m not certain how accurate or up-to-date it is.) My son then brought up the fact that they have a police officer at his school to keep everyone safe. Although I don’t believe that police officers at schools make much of a difference, I didn’t tell him that, because again, my number one concern at the moment was ensuring he felt safe — the safety afforded by their school police officer was something he clearly wanted to hold onto, and I didn’t want to take that comfort away from him.
If your child still feels scared, here’s another suggestion I loved from an interview I did with psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore for that Slate piece:
If your kids are still scared, Kennedy-Moore says, here’s something you can do together: On the bottom of a piece of paper, draw a stick figure and say, “This is you. Let’s talk about who’s in charge of keeping you safe.” Solicit ideas from your child. Above her you might draw stick figures of mom and dad; above that, other relatives; next, a layer of their teachers; then, police, firefighters, and the Army. Suddenly, your kid sees layer after layer of people standing between her and danger, Kennedy-Moore says, which can be very reassuring.
A sense of agency can make kids feel safer, too. Talk about steps you could take as a family to fight against gun violence. Maybe you decide to give money to advocacy organizations, or you call or write to your local politicians. A few years ago for Scientific American, I highlighted four laws that have been shown in studies to reduce the risk of mass shootings, so those are good laws to support.
After my son and I talked, I reminded him that I’m here if he has questions or wants to talk more about this. And I will probably check in with him later today. Remember, too, when kids ask questions, it can help to first drill down for more specifics. You might ask, What do you mean? or What did you hear? Sometimes we assume our kids are asking one thing, when really, they’re asking something very different. Clarifying questions can help us understand where our kids are coming from and how to respond.
4. Don’t have the news on 24/7, and help kids make smart media choices.
I know you want to know what’s happening right now, but be aware that blaring the TV or radio news throughout your house or car could very well overwhelm your kids. I suggest consuming the news of the tragedy in private, and encouraging tweens and teens to stay off the Internet and social media for a while too — or at least, helping them find responsible sources of information. Common Sense Media recommends a news sites and apps specifically designed for kids, including News-O-Matic and Newsela, as well as sources appropriate for teens, including NPR and HuffPost Teen.
I hope this is helpful. These conversations are so, so hard, especially when we as parents are processing the news alongside them — and feeling terrified, and angry, and devastated.
If you want to stay abreast of the news on gun violence, I highly recommend reading (and supporting) The Trace, a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to covering gun violence.
If you want to know why the solution to gun violence isn’t to have more “good guys with guns,” read this award-winning piece I wrote for Scientific American after going on a four-day-long roadtrip through the Deep South. It’s one of the pieces I’m most proud of, and sadly, it’s still relevant, as Republicans are now arguing that the solution to school shootings is to have more guns in schools.