How to talk to your kids about gun violence

With the development of technology and social media, even the youngest kids hear about the acts of mass violence that happen in schools and public places, or worse, experience them firsthand – and they ask about them. This puts parents in a difficult situation, as they don’t want to cause anxiety in their children but also want them to be prepared.

To provide guidance for parents who have to face this difficulty, the Denver Catholic spoke with Dr. Jim Langley, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of St. Raphael Counseling in Denver; and Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, consultant for safety and emergency management for the Jeffco School District, and author of They Call me Mr. De: The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience, and Recovery.

DeAngelis assured that, although this conversation is case-sensitive, it is also necessary – as necessary as teaching a child not to talk to strangers or how to cross the street, because, “unfortunately, this violence continues in our country.”

While Dr. Langley admitted that it is a complex topic and, for that reason, there is no single right answer, he says parents need to know their child well in order to understand what they are ready to hear, since every child is unique. Therefore, the following points should be considered with prudence.

Dr. Langley identified two “broad groups” – little kids and adolescents – and provided guidance for each.

Give sense of safety

It’s important for a child’s sense of well-being to trust that they’re in a safe environment, so it’s important that parents do their best to give their children a sense that they’re safe, Dr. Langley said. “If they are at school living in a state of fear all day long, that’s going to get in the way of learning and their own mental health.”

He does not recommend they become aware of the most recent shootings, but if they happen to find out and ask – which is highly likely – it’s important to reassure them that their school is safe, that if a “bad guy” were to walk into their school, their teachers would keep them safe.

Use the right words

DeAngelis recommended that parents use simple terms that are less frightening and more well-known when talking with little kids about the topic. For example, he suggested using “bad person” instead of “gunman.” He also advised parents to explain in simple words what they must to do in that situation: “lock the door and hide” or “do what your teacher tells you.”

Let them guide how much you share

“Let your kid’s level of understanding, curiosity or interest, guide how much information you shared. This works for many aspects of parenting,” Dr. Langley said. “You can, in some respect, let them guide you because they let you know, in a sense, how much information they are ready to hear.”

“For example, if you say, ‘It’s all about keeping you safe,’ and they ask, ‘Keeping me safe from what?’ you can [base] your own responses to you kids based on their level of understanding and questioning,” he explained.

Dr. Langley restressed the importance of leading these conversations – whether it be regarding active shooter drills at school or a recent shooting – to the topic of safety.

With adolescents, be more proactive

Older kids are more aware of these incidents and quickly hear about them through social media or their peers, Dr. Langley said. “So, with them, you want to be more proactive: talking with them on a factual basis, [about] things that they can do to keep themselves safe, and that it is important to follow the protocol of the school.

“But even with them, it is still important to help them have a sense that their environment is safe.”

Help them support friends and identify red flags

It is important to teach older kids to support their peers and their mental health needs, Dr. Langley explained. “These shootings were due to kids being pretty unstable, and I think it’s an opportunity for parents to have conversations with their children about the importance of recognizing, understanding and supporting the mental health needs that their peers have.”

This also includes teaching them the importance of letting an adult know if a kid is threatening to hurt himself or others, “not so much to be a whistleblower, but to keep their peers safe,” he said.

Have vulnerable conversations

Both DeAngelis and Dr. Langley highlighted the importance of the opportunity these situations present for parents to have meaningful conversations with their children and be more involved in their kids’ lives.

“Parents need to be involved in their kids’ lives. And what I saw as a principal at a high school is that a lot of times parents say, ‘Our kids are getting older and they need a little more freedom.’ But our kids need adults in their lives — obviously, during elementary and middle school, but also during high school,” DeAngelis said. “They need to be involved in their kid’s lives and sometimes have those difficult conversations and instill those values that are so important.”

A difficult challenge arises in their teenage years, since teens are less willing to open up. To help parents in this area, Dr. Langley said: “It’s a process of investment. The number one complaint that adolescents have about their parents is, ‘You never listen to me.’ That’s where it starts… a parent needs to work hard to listen to their kids all the time.

“What teenagers need, most of all when they’re struggling, is not so much advise as much as just someone to listen to them at a deeper level… It shows that the parent is open, accepting and nonjudgmental.”

Be involved in their social media

“What worries me todays is that these kids are inundated with what happens [on social media]. If they post something and they don’t get the likes, or if someone says something mean, these kids feel their lives are ruined,” DeAngelis said. “So, we need to make sure they have a support system, and we need to be there as adults.

“Do parents know what their kids are doing on their phone? Most of the times they’re pretty innocent [things], but there are places that these kids can [find] that can create all kinds of issues.”

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