How to Talk to Your Child About Gun Violence and School Shootings

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Gun violence. School shootings. Active shooters. These phrases spark fear and anxiety in the hearts of parents nationwide. In fact, most parents would prefer to just not think about them. But unfortunately, topics like gun violence and school shootings are unavoidable.

Many of today’s young people have grown up in a country where mass shootings—like those that happened at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School—are no longer unheard of. Not only are these tragedies at the forefront of their minds, but they also practice active shooter drills on a regular basis in their schools.

We can't shelter our kids and teens from learning about these tragic events, so it can be helpful for caretakers to be versed in ways to discuss it with their children. Experts share advice on how to have ongoing, age-appropriate conversations with your kids. Educating kids on what to look for, how to stay safe, and how to report concerns can give them the tools to act if the unthinkable happens. Here's where to start.

Why These Conversations Are Important

Guns are the leading cause of death among American children and teens, with one out of 10 gun deaths involving someone 19 or younger. In fact, firearm deaths are more than three times higher than drownings.

What's more, when it comes to school shootings, 93% of school shooters planned their attack in advance. And in four out of five school shootings the attacker told someone about their plans beforehand. For this reason, parents and educators need to teach kids to not only recognize the signs of an issue with a friend or a peer but also know who to talk to about their concerns.

When you equip kids and teens with these skills, you have taken the first step in preventing gun violence and school shootings. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates that when kids and teens know the signs of gun violence, they can help prevent school shootings.

Research shows that we still have a long way to go in this area. According to a study conducted by Alfred University in Alfred, NY, only about half of the students surveyed said they would tell an adult if they overheard someone at school talking about shooting someone, and if they did tell someone they would tell a teacher.

The key to getting more kids to speak up, according to experts, is for parents and educators to continue to dialogue with them and empower them to say something when they hear or see something. This means having ongoing, proactive conversations and not just a one-time conversation after a tragedy occurs. Doing so can go a long way in preventing future school shootings and gun violence.

Tips for Productive Conversations

If you are like most parents, the thought of having an age-appropriate conversation about gun violence can feel overwhelming. The key, according to experts, is not having the perfect speech prepared for your child or teen, but instead meeting them where they are at.

"The number one thing you want to do is ensure the conversation is age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate," explains Rachel Masi, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of research for Sandy Hook Promise. "As a parent, you are an expert in your own kids. So, when talking to them use language they will understand and remember that the conversation you have with your high schooler will not be the same one you have with a kindergartner."

Process Your Own Feelings

Before you can have a conversation with your child or teen about school shootings and gun violence, you need to process your own feelings about the issue. Kids will pick up on your stress and anxiety, so you want to be sure you have worked through any issues you have with the subject matter. This way, you can approach the conversation in a calm and reassuring manner.

What's more, it is important to remember that kids do not think about gun violence and school shootings in the same way that adults do, says Gregory Moffatt, PhD, a psychologist, homicide profiler, and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University.

Gregory Moffatt, PhD

Adults look at the bigger picture when it comes to gun violence and school shootings. But from a young child's perspective, they do not see the big picture, so parents need to address only the things they need to know.

— Gregory Moffatt, PhD

"Adults look at the bigger picture when it comes to gun violence and school shootings," explains Dr. Moffatt. "But from a young child's perspective, they do not see the big picture, so parents need to address only the things they need to know. For example, [you might tell your child] if your friend brings a gun to school, here is what you need to know. Give them simple rules like don't touch it and tell an adult right away."

Follow Your Child's Lead

Rather than preparing a speech for your kids or giving them a lecture on what to do if someone brings a gun to school, both Dr. Masi and Dr. Moffatt suggest interacting with your kids and teens in a more organic way. Ask open-ended questions and allow them to direct the conversation.

Potential Questions to Ask

According, to Dr. Moffatt there are a number of open-ended questions and statements you can use to get your child talking about this topic. These include:

  • What do you think about that?
  • What is it like for you?
  • What can we do if that happens?
  • What are you seeing at school?

You also should answer their questions to the best of your ability, says Dr. Masi. And, if you don't know the answer, it's OK to say you don't know. Sometimes you can even look for the answer together.

"Another key piece when having these conversations is noticing their body language and to follow their lead," she explains. "Parents don’t always notice these cues that they are done with the conversation not ready to talk about it anymore."

But if your child starts doing something else, seems less engaged, or looks away, they may have reached their limit on the topic and it would be better to address it another day.

Reassure Them

The potential for gun violence and school shootings can be scary for kids if it is not approached in the right way. Dr. Masi stresses that while having conversations with kids about the potential of a school shooting is important, you also need to make sure you reassure them that they are safe. "Parents should stay away from scare tactics," she says.

Normalize Having Hard Conversations

When your child seems to get overwhelmed by these emotional topics, both Dr. Masi and Dr. Moffatt recommend validating and acknowledging your child's feelings. "One of the things that parents often fear with anything that is hard, is that bringing up the topic is going to cause problems," says Dr. Moffatt. "Parents need to model that it’s OK to talk about the elephant in room. Let them know it’s OK to talk about [hard things]."

He adds that it is important that parents recognize that we all feel what we feel. Instead of saying, "Oh everything will be fine," or "There is no need to worry," validate how your child must be feeling by saying, "That must be scary for you," or asking "What can we do when feeling like that?" When you normalize talking about hard things and validate their feelings, you are helping your child learn to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.

Provide Them With Tools

The key to empowering kids—and ultimately preventing school violence—is empowering kids to recognize where they can make an impact, Dr. Masi explains. Giving kids tools and skills they can use can go a long way in helping them feel empowered and in control. If they are feeling particularly anxious or stressed, she suggests brainstorming together. You can start by saying "Well, let's think of some good strategies that make your school feels safer ." You also can help them identify who they can talk to at school or adults they can go to during the day.

Keep the Dialogue Open

Too many times, parents think of conversations about school shootings, drugs, or sex as a one-time conversations, but Dr. Moffat explains that these types of conversations need to be ongoing. It's a conversation that you have consistently over the years—one that changes as your child gets older and has more questions. "If you view this as just one conversation, you're not going to be super effective and your kids aren't going to be prepared," says Dr. Moffatt.

It's important to circle back to this topic. Ask your kids what they are seeing at school or if there is anything that is bothering them or concerning to them. Then, allow them to share their concerns and direct the conversation rather than thinking you need to have something prepared ahead of time.

Use Drills to Touch Base

Many times, schools will have active shooter drills or other similar procedures in an effort to teach kids how to respond should an emergency arise. The goal is that the steps to stay safe become second nature to kids, much like a tornado drill or a fire drill, says Dr. Moffatt.

You also can use these situations as an opportunity to touch base with your kids and have a conversation about what they are thinking or feeling about the potential of a shooting at school. See what they are doing and learning, and then remind them that they are not powerless in a situation like that and there are things they can do to stay safe.

A Word From Verywell

Although having a conversation about gun violence or school shootings can feel overwhelming at first, they are an important part of keeping your kids and teens safe at school. Focus on following your child's lead, answering their questions honestly, and refraining from providing more information than what they need.

Your goal is to empower them and provide them with knowledge and skills that will keep them safe. Avoid scaring them or talking about gory details. This type of information is usually not productive and often just increases their anxiety and stress.

And, if your child seems to be struggling with fears and anxiety, do not hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional for help. Sometimes having the extra support from a person outside of the family can be just what your child needs.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Education Association. Gun violence prevention.

  2. The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. A Public Health Crisis Decades in the Making.

  3. Cunningham RM, Walton MA, Carter PM. The major causes of death in children and adolescents in the united statesNew England Journal of Medicine. 2018;379(25):2468-2475.

  4. Sandy Hook Promise. 16 facts about gun violence and school shootings.

  5. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. United States Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center. Mass Attacks in Public Spaces.

  6. Alfred University. Lethal violence in schools: A national study final report.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.