Lately it seems there has been more gun violence in Toronto — where my family lives — than usual. And in the wake of the horror of the Colorado theatre shootings, it seems like everywhere we turn there is news of death. I was asked to go on CityTVs Breakfast Television Toronto last week to talk with Tracy Moore and Dr. Ariel Dalfen, Perinatal Psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital, about how to speak to kids about the violence. Something that didn’t occur to me until I got to the studio was that my kids wanted to watch me on the show, but I didn’t want them to because it meant they would hear all about the 12 dead people who never made it out of the movie theatre.
The irony wasn’t lost on me: Here I was, about to talk to parents about the most important thing they can do to help their kids deal with the shooting, and all I wanted to do was hide it from my own children. To protect their innocence. To ensure they never feel fear or anxiety. Of course I know that this is unrealistic. The Today’s Parent editor in me knows how important it is to start the conversations now, so that my children feel comfortable coming to me with their questions and I can help them navigate some of the challenges and bumpy roads that lie ahead for them. But the mom in me just wishes they could stay young forever.
Reality check: My kids aren’t babies anymore. I have three boys ages six, seven and seven, and they like to play with toy guns. They like to play video games where they shoot at targets (no “people,” yet), and they watch movies that some parents would deem inappropriate for their age group. (Anything with a superhero in it is fair game at our house.) So it’s time for me to start talking to them about mature issues. (My 10-year-old daughter, Milla, and I already talk with each other fairly well, I think, so I am letting her guide the conversation about the recent events. She is super sensitive already and spends a lot of time worrying about the bad things that happen in the world so I am working hard with her to teach her to believe in the Canadian legal system and government policies that we have to help keep us all safe. And I tell her as often as I can that I love her and will do everything I can to ensure her safety.)
For those of you trying to figure out how to handle talking to your kids about guns and violence, here are some of the key points to consider:
1) What’s the best approach to starting a conversation with our kids about the news they are hearing about?
Of course, a child’s age determines how much information you should give them. When they are young, set the foundation for years to come: Give them a little bit of details, and wait to see if they ask for more. Staying connected is important, and showing them you are interested in their questions will build a foundation for years to come. Let them lead the conversation. Communication is key, especially as they get older. Even just knowing that you are available if they need someone to talk to can make a huge difference. When they want to talk, stop what you are doing and give them your undivided attention, regardless of their age. Don’t talk over them, or lecture them. Gently encourage dialogue (don’t lecture) and never show disappointment in what you hear. And tell them you love them as often as you can. Sounds trivial, but you honestly can’t tell them often enough.
2) How can you reassure them that they are safe without lying?
You can tell them that it is your job as their parent to do whatever you can do to protect them. You can tell them that sometimes bad people do bad things and sometimes even you don’t know why. Dr. Dalfen had great advice: Remind them that there are adults like policemen, security guards and politicians whose job it is to ensure the community is safe.
3) At what age should we be starting this discussion with them?
There is no wrong age to start. Use the TV shows they are watching or video games they are playing and turn them into a teachable moment. If they are watching shows or playing games with violence, they are probably ready to talk about the difference between real and fake guns. Don’t use scare tactics or be overly dramatic. Use your judgement. Sitting a five-year-old down and explaining the implications of guns and gangs may seem unheard of for some parents; however, if they live in a community where this kind of behaviour is prevalent, it may make sense.
4) What if you can’t talk to your kids, or they don’t want to talk to you?
If you don’t have the kind of relationship where these conversations are already part of your daily lives, you definitely don’t want to force them. (That won’t get you very far.) Gently revisit the topic again sometime in the near future. If they won’t talk to you, find a family member or friend to try to reach them. If your child is showing signs of real anxiety about their personal safety (they don’t want to go outside or to school) or if they really seem to be having a hard time dealing with their emotions (they become withdrawn, moody or depressed), talk to your doctor.
Have you had conversations with your kids about guns and violence? How did you handle the situation?