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.”

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.