How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Shootings

Family psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein of New York City shares her advice for having the difficult conversation.

Amid news of yet another mass shooting, parents around America are grappling with how to discuss gun violence with their children.

To help with the difficult conversation, family psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein of New York City is sharing with her advice.

Let your child’s age be a guide. For parents of toddlers and teens alike, Hartstein recommends keeping in mind the age of your child when deciding what is appropriate to discuss.

“As adults, we tend to over talk and bombard them with information, and it’s just too much,” she explained.

For parents with younger children, Hartstein says it might be better to gloss over the details.

“Kids under 5 [years old] probably do not need to discuss it," she said. "If you really feel like this information’s going to get to your child before you get to talk to them about it, you might just mention very simply, ‘Something bad happened in Las Vegas and some people died, and we’re all very sad about it.'"

Pay attention to your child’s media diet. Especially for parents of tweens and teens, it is important to monitor what your child is consuming on social media.

“A lot of information is coming out through Snapchat and Instagram,” Hartstein explained. “They may not know how to process it all, so have them show you what they’re looking at, and really pay attention and answer whatever questions they might have and talk about it with them openly. It’s being bombarded at them all the time, and we need to figure out how to filter it and shut it down when necessary.

Talk openly with older children. It is important for parents to adjust their approach to difficult conversations as their kids their reach late-teens, according to Hartstein.

“Older kids are going to have access to the information, so you want to be able to provide clear, concrete, true, honest answers," she told "And if you don’t have the answer, you really need to say, ‘I don’t know but maybe we can sit down together and see what we can find out.'

"For those of you with college-age students, who are going to festivals and going to concerts on their own, talk to them about a safety plan. Are they going with a buddy? Are they going with a friend? Do they know where they have to leave?”

Keep it simple. Be prepared for questions like "why?" and "how?" — but don’t pressure yourself to have all the answers.

“There isn’t really an easy answer and sometimes the best answer is to keep it simple and just say, ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “Or to say, ‘Sometimes people make really bad choices and do bad things, and our jobs as your parents is to do our best to keep you safe.’ The key is we can’t prevent it, but we can do our best to keep ourselves safe and our children safe.”

Look for changes in your child's behavior. If your son or daughter is being particularly affected by the news, Hartstein says there will be tell-tale signs.

“Some of us have stronger reactions than others — kids especially — so some things to look out for might be any kind of change in behavior," she said. "Are they less interested in things they like? Are they more clingy because they’re more anxious? Are they refusing to go to school? Are they not wanting to go to places where there are crowds because they are afraid? Anything that’s interfering with their regular, daily routine is something to watch out for.”

Watch how they play. For many kids, playtime could be a way to understand difficult topics.

“They might be reenacting some of these tragedies in their play and that might be the way they need to talk about it,” she says. “So you might want to get on the floor and play with them, and see where that play leads you so you can help provide any support or offer any answers to questions they might have.”

Reassure them. It is important for parents to help their kids cope with how mass tragedies are affecting them instead of brushing their feelings aside, Hartstein said.

She added: “If your child is really holding onto this anxiety and sadness and hurt and really feeling the pain of the world, you want to be able to let them know that that makes sense and validate that reaction."

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seek outside resources to help kids cope if you are not sure what the next steps might be.

“If it continues, if they’re such a strong feeler that they can’t quite get to school or they can’t quite make it through their day, you may want to consider reaching out to the guidance counselor at school or talking to the pediatrician or reaching out to a therapist for additional support on how to help them through this depressive, anxious time and how to help you help them manage it,” Hartstein said.

Last, but not least, take care of yourself too. Before a parent reacts to their children’s feelings, it’s important to address their own, Hartstein said.

“It is really important to take the time to take care of yourself, deal with your own reactions before you go and you help your children,” she explained. “It’s like the oxygen mask on their airplane: You’ve got to use it first before you help the others. And without that, you’re going to really be of no service to anybody. If you aren’t feeling OK and comfortable, nobody else in your life is either."