How To Talk About Shootings With Kids

Talking about violence with children can be difficult. There are ways to make it easier.

Parents know they're going to have conversations with their kids about difficult topics, such as sex, consent, birth control, drugs, alcohol, menstruation, peer pressuredealing with the police, and more. 

It's important to have these conversations with kids, regardless of whether they may learn about these topics in school or from someone else. By sitting down with them, parents are able to ensure their kids are getting the proper, accurate information and show their child that they can come to them if they have any questions. Sometimes, these conversations help to prepare them to make well-informed decisions. Other times, it helps them to better process information.

Because of the number of mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. in the past decade, more and more American parents are having to add another difficult conversation to the list — especially in light of recent events in Las Vegas.  


A report published last year found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools hold some form of "active-shooter" drills. These "lockdown" or "active-shooter" drills teach both kids and teachers how to react if an armed intruder enters the school. 

Whether they learn about gun violence from these drills, their peers and older siblings, or from the news, most kids can't escape information about mass shootings and other acts of terror. To prevent kids from feeling confused and scared, it's important parents talk to them about it. 

"If your kids are younger than five, experts say they're probably too young to discuss it," it is said in a video (below) for TODAY on the topic. "But when kids are old enough to ask, they're ready for a conversation. Keep your answers simple." 

First and foremost, it's important parents reassure their children they're safe. "Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately," the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) advises. 

Be patient and let their questions guide how much information you give them. You don't want to give away too much information that may make them feel more afraid. NASP says some children prefer creative outlets, such as writing or doing an art project, to work through their feelings and questions. It may be helpful to include these during your talk. 

Make sure your explanations are appropriate for their age. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, provided TODAY with recommendations for each age level. 

Young children, in preschool and kindergarten, can be provided with a simple, one-sentence story, according to Gilboa. 

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," according to NASP. Provide children with examples of safety measures, such as locked doors, drills practiced in school, and other security measures. Kids younger than age 11 should be shielded from media coverage of violent tragedies. If children do see images of them, Gilboa told TODAY then parents should present their children with positive photos to counteract the negative ones they saw. "Let's see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help," she said. 

Cover image via wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Middle school children will likely be more open about whether they feel unsafe. Parents can talk to their kids by directly asking them if they heard about the recent mass shooting. "If you are going to talk [about] a fraught or laden topic … you start with a pretest. You are going to ask how they feel about it," Gilboa said. Listen to their questions and concerns and provide them with information about safety measure in place at their school and in their community. 

Teenagers will likely have strong opinions on the matter, and be more open about their questions. Again, parents should start the conversation by asking if they've heard the news and listening to their response. "Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions, and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask, 'What are you doing,'" Gilboa told TODAY. "You can answer and then ask, 'What are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?' "

Review safety procedures. "This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk," according to NASP. 

Regardless of your child's age, it's important parents pay close attention to their emotional state. "Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child's level of anxiety or discomfort," according to NASP. "In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned."

For more information on points to emphasize while talking to children about violence, visit the National Association of School Psychologists' website.

Cover image via wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock



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