Dr. Ashley Miller is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Burke Medical Center.
Educating kids about gun safety is one of the top priorities for doctors, parents, schools, researchers, and others who care for America’s children. For good reason: Seemingly every day, we are confronted with a new statistic or anecdote about firearm injuries in the United States. Whether hearing a news story about a school shooting or a reading a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showing that firearm injuries were the leading cause of death among children ages 1–19, we as adults know that talking to our kids about firearms is essential for their health and well being.
But how do we have these important conversations?
While every family will handle this topic differently, as a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who cares deeply about this issue, I can offer some advice.
Start Thinking About Firearm Safety Once Your Child is Mobile
Parents and caregivers of babies and toddlers often read up on how to childproof their homes. Parents trade tips about the best child safety gate for the stairs. They may buy gadgets to keep little ones from getting into the toilet and to keep fingers out of electric sockets.
The same care and attention should be given to firearm safety.
If you have a firearm in the home:
- Make sure it is locked up and unloaded;
- Store ammunition separately from the firearm;
- Lock up ammunition too;
- Hide any keys. If the safe has a password, make it something your kids wouldn’t be able to figure out.
- Keep firearms and ammunition up very, very high, out of reach of kids of all ages.
Talk to Young Children About Guns
There’s no right or wrong age to start talking to children about firearm safety, but I encourage parents to talk to preschool and elementary school kids about gun safety.
Parents can show children images of guns in order for them to know what firearms look like. Tell them that if they see a gun, they should tell an adult. Teach them never to pick up a gun, even if it looks like a toy. And teach them that if they see a gun, they should assume it is loaded and dangerous.
Have these conversations repeatedly. Just as parents remind children time and time again to look both ways before crossing the street or not to talk to strangers, parents must repeatedly have the gun safety conversation with their kids — even if they don’t have guns in the home.
Guns and Playdates
Ready to have your school-age child play at someone else’s home but you don’t know whether the family has a gun or if they do, whether it is stored safely?
You are not alone.
Remind yourself: There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking whether there is a firearm in the home. You can say, “I want my child to come over to play. I get anxious about guns. If I had a gun in my house, I would store it up high, locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately. Would you do the same?”
Your child’s safety is paramount. Though these conversations can be awkward, they are worth having.
Talk to Adolescents About Guns
By middle school and high school, preteens and teens likely have seen references to guns and gun violence in books, movies, TV shows, the news, and on social media. Conversations at this stage should be transparent. And they should be similar to other conversations about safety. We need to talk to our kids about sex, drugs, wearing seatbelts, not texting while driving – and about guns.
My advice to parents:
- Ask adolescents what they know about guns;
- Ask whether they have ever been in a situation where they have been around someone who had a firearm;
- Ask whether they have ever seen a gun at a friend’s house;
- Be open and honest about safe ways to handle firearms;
- Create a safe space for kids to talk about their concerns and situations they’ve been in;
- Let your kids’ answers guide the conversation.
It can be awkward to leave a friend’s house, so talk to kids about ways to leave gracefully, such as saying their mom texted them to come home right away. Or kids can say they’d rather shoot hoops in the driveway with their buddy or go to the mall. The idea is they should feel comfortable finding ways to leave the situation. Kids should also feel empowered to tell an adult if they see a gun out at a friend’s home.
And talk to other parents about this topic to learn from one another about good ways to approach gun safety.
Above all, trust your instincts as a parent. And make sure kids know never to touch a firearm — loaded or unloaded — and to feel comfortable leaving a situation where they feel uncomfortable.
Resources Are Available
Because gun violence is a significant public health concern, one of our pediatricians at Kaiser Permanente was awarded a two-year research grant from the Kaiser Permanente Center for Gun Violence Research and Education and the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention to explore how integrated health systems can deploy gun prevention strategies in communities disproportionately impacted by gun violence.
If you need help talking to your children about gun safety, know that many community members are available to help, including teachers, law enforcement officers ,and your child’s pediatrician. Don’t hesitate to reach out for resources and support.
Feature image by Andrey Popov/stock.adobe.com
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