How to Talk to Teens about Gun Violence

Gun violence is nothing new in our country. We’ve seen the headlines and heard from survivors. Maybe we’ve even participated in demonstrations or written letters to our elected leaders about solutions. There are numerous political debates about how to reduce gun violence and this is a good thing. Healthy, productive debate leads to equitable resolve. After all, we are also a nation of problem-solvers and innovators, committed to progress.

But I’m not talking to those of you who are working to prevent gun violence. To be clear, it is important and increasingly difficult work, but there is another immediate crisis at hand. How do you explain the senseless tragedy of gun violence to your children?

The recent shooting at the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper based out of Annapolis, Maryland, is another incident in a long line of gun-related violence. Five employees of the paper were killed earlier this week when a gunman opened fire in the newsroom.

The investigation is still ongoing but police have identified Jarrod W. Ramos of Laurel, Maryland as the shooter. He has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder, according to the Baltimore Sun.

This incident is certainly tragic for the Annapolis community and the country at large. It may also affect teens and young adults about to enter the workforce.

Other gun-related deaths have occurred in schools, churches, and other places that many of us consider “safe.” CNN compiled a list of incidents in 2018 and found 23 school shootings had occurred in just the first 21 weeks of 2018. All of these events have had a profound impact on youth in our country. Some have become activists. Others have reached out to those at risk of following down the dark path of violence. But all began as scared, confused kids.

Here are a few things to consider when helping the teens and young adults in your life deal with the recent tragedy in Annapolis.

Be Honest

Young children may not have the capacity to process all of the details when a shooting occurs, but teens and young adults certainly do. And they should be given the chance to process all of the details.

Provide them with reliable resources and information, then be ready for their questions. If you are tempted to omit details or sugar-coat what happened, this can lead to confusion and ultimately a breakdown of trust.

With social media and news coverage, they will almost certainly hear about the event. You want to make sure that they are getting their information from a reliable source. Explain to them what kind of sources they can count on.

You may be tempted to not talk about details that are uncomfortable, such as injury or death. But these difficult topics are often the ones that teens and young adults have the most questions about. It may not be an easy conversation, but it is an important one.

Fear is Normal

Anyone can be scared following an incident like that in Annapolis. Teens and young adults often struggle to share that fear with someone else. Starting the conversation can be one of the hardest things. Begin by asking them what they know about the incident and focusing on facts. They will often start sharing their emotions once they start talking. If it doesn’t happen right away, don’t push them. The important thing is for youngsters to know that they can share their feelings when they are ready.

Those feelings may not surface right away. An unexpected or delayed fear response can catch teens and young adults off guard. If that person pursues a career in journalism, for example, they may be thinking about the recent shooting in Annapolis when they start working in the industry. It may even impact their future career plans.

Be prepared for some reactions that may not seem related to the incident. Children and adults struggling to cope with or understand an event like a shooting often act out. Anger is a common emotion that masks fear. Try to remember that their behavior may be related to the shooting, even it doesn’t immediately seem obvious.

Get Help if Needed

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, an organization that works to “raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who experience or witness traumatic events,” provides resources for those impacted by an event like a shooting.

“Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or if you are worried, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma,” they share in a guide to “Talking to Children about the Shooting.” Consulting with a medical professional about what to look for or when to seek additional care is also a good option.

Traumatic events like these are tragic and difficult to deal with. If you are helping a teen or young adult, just try to be patient and give them what they need…whether it may be facts, a listening ear, or space to think. One of the most important things you can do to help a teen or young adult cope with a shooting is to make sure that they have the facts and a safe place for them to discuss their thoughts and feelings.

No matter what you think the solution is to prevent future acts of violence, we can all agree that helping survivors cope with their feelings is an important part of healing. Thank you for putting the needs of the teens and young adults in your life first.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Katie Begley

Katie Begley is a US Naval Academy graduate and former Surface Warfare Officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education, and parenting subjects. Katie has worked in numerous communications roles for volunteer organizations and professionally for a local parenting magazine.

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