Depending on their family and community, children may have different experiences and encounters with guns. Some children may encounter guns regularly with families who hunt or go to shooting ranges and may associate guns with food and recreation. Other children may be affected by community violence or domestic violence and may associate guns with danger and ongoing trauma. And yet other children and families may have only seen guns on TV or in video games.
Regardless of the context, many children and families are impacted by guns. This blog will describe how caregivers can talk to children about safety and guns.
Acknowledge a child’s thoughts and feelings
Adults can talk about guns and safety in a developmentally appropriate way when they notice a child pretending to use a gun. This can be a chance to talk with the child about their experiences with or thoughts about guns.
Adults also can help a child label the emotions they might be feeling during the pretend play by saying “I noticed when you pretend to hold a gun you look angry.” They also can follow up with a related story book.
Some children may feel uneasy at school or at home, especially if they have seen or heard about news reports of shootings. It is important to help a child feel safe and not in danger at home and at school. Caregivers can tell a child: “Adults are here to keep you safe. At school, your teachers keep you safe. At home, your family keeps you safe.”
Teach about safety and responsibility with guns
Adults can explain basic gun safety to young children with simple language. “Guns are powerful things. They are never for children. Never, ever, touch a gun.” Adults can explain the difference between reality and fantasy. They might say, “On TV, characters sometimes use guns and they don’t seem to get hurt. In real life, people can be really hurt by guns.”
Many young children have magical thinking about guns and death and believe that after being shot, a person will come back to life. It’s important to explain how weapons such as guns can have serious and even life-ending consequences to children and adults.
However, it is never a child’s sole responsibility to stay away from guns. Toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-aged children are young, curious, and seek hands-on experiences. This behavior is typical and expected. They are likely to explore novel and interesting objects, even when told to stay away from them.
It is always an adult’s responsibility to keep weapons locked up and away from children. It is an adult’s responsibility to keep children safe and monitor them. When visiting new places, such as other homes, parents should ask whether there are weapons in the home and, if so, whether they are locked up securely. These can be awkward but necessary conversations.
Seek additional support
Sometimes when talking about guns children may share information about their home life that discloses situations of domestic violence or abuse. Caregivers that suspect that a child has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed by abuse or neglect should report it online at https://childabuse.illinois.gov. In an emergency, call the 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline at 800-25-ABUSE (800-252-2873). If a child is in immediate danger, call 911 first.
Children and adults are impacted by guns in communities across the state. We can have open and caring conversations about guns and safety with young children. Adults can focus on their responsibility to lock and put away weapons, especially with children in the home. We can all work together to keep children in our care safe.