On Dec. 14 of last year, 20 children and seven adults lost their lives in the senseless tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. As we approach the anniversary of this horrific event, we remember and mourn the victims and the families who have been affected by this tragedy.

No parent should ever have to suffer through the pain of losing a child to gun violence. And with guns in more than one third of all U.S. households, firearms present a real, everyday danger to children, especially when improper safety techniques are followed.

Frederick Rivara, MD, MPH, division chief of general pediatrics and vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, offer the following tips and advice for parents looking to keep kids safe from firearms, and to help reduce their exposure to gun violence in the media.

Gun safety in the home

Less than half of U.S. families with children and guns store their guns unloaded and locked away. Each year just in Washington state, about 25 children are hospitalized and four to five die due to unintentional gun injuries.  Most of these shootings occur in or around the home.

The best way to protect children from firearms injury in the home is to remove the firearms entirely. However, if this is not an option, Rivara says there are a number of ways that you can minimize the risk:

Store your guns safely:

  • All weapons should be stored in a securely locked case, well out of the reach of children, and make sure children do not have access to the key or combination.
  • Stored firearms should be unloaded and in the uncocked position.
  • Store ammunition separate from the weapon, also in a securely locked location out of the reach of children.
  • Use trigger locks or chamber locks on weapons. Even a padlock can be used to prevent the cylinder of a weapon from locking into place.
  • Remove guns from your home if a family member is depressed, suicidal or is abusing drugs or alcohol.

With the popularity of shooting video games and toy guns, the lines between these weapons and their very real consequences are often blurred. Parents should talk with their children and make them aware that weapons are not toys and that if they ever do come into contact with a weapon, they are not to touch it under any circumstances.

Gun violence in the media

Whether or not you keep a weapon in your home, children will be exposed to gun violence in the media at some point, often very early in life. In fact, a recent study found that the rate of violence in movies is increasing, and that this violence is now more predominant in the PG-13 movies your teens are watching than in R-rated movies. And with the medical consensus being that exposure to violent media can increase aggression in children, and that children often imitate what they see on the screen, parents must be mindful of their children’s exposure to gun violence in the media.

While it’s challenging to prevent your child from encountering this violence, you can help to limit it while you talk to them about its real-world consequences. Here are a few tips to help:

Implement a media diet. Christakis recently conducted a study that found that children reproduce what they see on television or in the movies, both bad and good. He suggests staying aware of what your children are watching by keeping a media diary. He also advises to watch more TV and movies with your children so you’re always aware of the content they’re consuming and can discuss it with your kids.

Be available. When events like the Sandy Hook tragedy occur, these stories of violence are plastered all across the news. Each child responds to this in a different way. Many become fearful and have questions about these events. Some end up angry or grief-stricken, while others feel a sense of betrayal. Be sure to talk with your children about these events to reinforce that they are safe and to assuage their fears. Doing this will also show that you are available to talk with them about anything, no matter how difficult it may be.

Keep an eye out for red flags. Pretend gun play, violent video games and movies and other aggressive influences are a part of our lives, and finding the right balance between limiting children’s exposure to these stimuli and not keeping them entirely in the dark can be difficult. However, it can help to look out for potential red flags, such as a child “accidentally” hurting another, aggressive behavior, or a lack of empathy or remorse for their actions. Please discuss these concerns with your child’s doctor.

Keeping our Kids Safe

Protecting our kids from gun violence doesn’t stop at our front doors. To that end, Seattle Children’s and Town Hall Seattle are teaming up to present an educational forum on what parents and care providers can do now to keep kids safe from gun violence. The forum includes a diverse panel of speakers, including Rivara and Christakis, and will be moderated by Leslie Walker, MD, division chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s. Beth Ebel, MD, MSc, MPH, faculty member at Seattle Children’s, associate professor of pediatrics and adjunct associate professor of Epidemiology and Health Services at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, is also participating in the panel.

The forum will take place on Thursday, Dec. 12, from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Town Hall Seattle’s Great Hall, located at 1119 8th Ave. in downtown Seattle. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are $5.

Resources

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Rivara or Dr. Christakis, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or press@seattlechildrens.org