Pop-pop-pop-pop. The unmistakable sound of gunshots. We thought them concerning, but more of a nuisance as they broke the silence in our Olney neighborhood 20 years ago. Back then, we might have heard them a block or more away from Fisher Park, which was notorious for drug deals. And, we only heard them about once a month, on average. Today, the situation in Philadelphia has changed. Dramatically. Philadelphia is the sixth largest city in the country, yet this year it has seen more shootings than much larger cities—including New York and Los Angeles. And 2022 is turning out to be the deadliest year ever for gun violence in the City of Brotherly Love. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the summer of 2022 saw nearly eight people shot every day. That’s a rate of more than twice that of just five years ago. And, more women and children were shot this summer than ever before. But the victims of gun violence aren’t just the ones who get shot. According to the same Inquirer article, During a single weekend this August, in three separate shootings across the city, children watched their parents getting shot. More than that, children can live with the paralyzing fear that they, or their loved ones, will become victims of gun violence. For students who receive scholarships from Children’s Jubilee Fund, the reality of gun violence hits very close to home. Not only do most of our students live in neighborhoods where gun violence is rampant, but many of our students have lost family members to gun violence. Some of our students have lost siblings, friends, and parents to gun violence. And like the children mentioned in the Inquirer article mentioned above, several of our students have witnessed their own parents being shot. It’s traumatic enough for adults to witness shootings. But children lack the social and emotional resources that adults have. For children who witness gun violence or even simply live in fear of gun violence, the effects can be profound and lifelong. So how can parents, teachers, older siblings, and caregivers talk with children about their fears concerning gun violence? Here are a few ideas.
- Open up the conversation. Ask children leading questions about their perceptions, ideas, and fears concerning gun violence. Ask them what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, and how they’re afraid they might be impacted. Don’t shut them down, minimize their fears, or offer easy answers. Engage in meaningful conversation with them and allow them to bring their fears into the light.
- Give them permission to be afraid. Violence is something that is legitimately scary. And, the seeming randomness and lack of warning surrounding gun violence can be particularly scary for a child. Talk with them about the reality of violence. But help them see that the very worst things that might happen usually don’t
- Help them discover alternate behaviors to deal with their fears. Ask your child what some things are that they can do when they feel anxious or afraid in order to feel less at risk. Some good ideas are to pray, remember a Bible verse, silently sing a song that reminds them about God’s love, or to write down in a journal one truth to counteract each fear or anxious thought that surfaces. You can also help them to learn some deep breathing exercises to slow their heart rate and help them feel less anxious.
- Reassure them they’re not alone. As an adult or older sibling, reassure your child that they don’t have to face life and all of their inner fears alone. Identify yourself, and other trustworthy and mature individuals around them as safe people to whom they can come when they feel afraid. Tell them that you can help them talk about the things around them and the things inside them that feel unsafe.
- Point them to God. Bigger human beings can help protect smaller human beings. But we can’t protect them from everything. There is someone who can, though—God. Help your child understand that God is always with him or her, and can help protect your child’s body and their thoughts. When your child feels anxious, remembering that God is good and that God loves them and takes care of them can help him/her feel calmer and safer. Julie Lowe is a Christian counselor who specializes working with children. She has some especially good strategies for doing this in this video and in this short book.