Talking Gun Violence with Your Children

Duke experts discuss the shootings, gun control politics and ways to help your children

Mourners embrace following services for six year-old Noah Pozner, who was killed in the Newtown shootings.  Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners embrace following services for six year-old Noah Pozner, who was killed in the Newtown shootings. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

When talking to young children about last week's horrific shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, parents should try to strike the delicate balance between providing too much and too little information, Duke experts say.

Parents should answer questions in plain language that a child can easily understand, said John Fairbank, a Duke professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences who serves as co-director of the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

"It'll vary by the age of the child, but generally balance is considered key to explaining a tragedy like this to children," Fairbank told the Durham Herald-Sun. "Parents don't want to minimize this event and just hope that children will ignore it or forget about it, but you don't want to overdo it, either."

Kids need clarity, counseled Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke center. Even young children are inundated with information through TV and social media, so the facts can't be ignored.

"It's important to open up the discussion," Brymer told the New York Times. "There's a lot of talk on Facebook and Twitter, and it's important to clarify what's rumor and what's not."

Twenty children and six adults were killed Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Experts say children affected by that shooting will struggle to understand why it happened. Young children are quite different psychologically than adults or even teenagers, Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke's Center for Child and Family Health, told Time magazine.

"Little kids see the world in black and white," Gurwitch told the magazine. "Their world is very literal. There are rules and you can't break rules, but this broke all kinds of rules."

Children who learn about the shootings may feel anxious or stressed in large part because they occurred in a school, Ken Dodge, director of Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy, told Time. While schools are generally very safe, the high-profile drama associated with this shooting can't be ignored, Dodge stressed.

"You can say to your kids, 'Just because this happened at one school doesn't mean it's going to happen at your school. I'm really comfortable and confident about your school,' " says Dodge. "It's natural to feel anxious, but most kids will get over it on their own."

Perhaps most frustrating is the difficult task of rooting out the people likely to commit such horrific acts. The shooter at the Connecticut school was Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old about whom relatively little is yet publicly known.

"We're not even good at predicting minor violence. When you're talking about preventing a mass shooting, that's a needle in a haystack," Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told the Washington Post. "You can't just go out and lock up all the socially awkward young men in the world."

The shooting immediately elicited cries for stronger gun control, a political battle that may prove difficult. Kristin Goss, a Duke public policy professor, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that renewing an expired assault weapons ban may be a tough sell in Congress unless President Obama can curry a great deal of public opinion in favor of it.

 "I don't think any assault weapons ban can be passed without him putting it at the top of his agenda," Goss told the Globe and Mail. "And it is 99 percent likely that any ban would have to grandfather existing weapons."

Law professor Chris Schroeder examined the issue of gun control and background checks last year, when he was assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice.

"We have identified ways to improve the effectiveness of the background check system that we concluded would be positive and constructive and help meet the president's objective of keeping more guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals," Schroeder told the New York Times. "I'm hopeful that some of these can move forward and actually be implemented."