Raising children today in a world saturated with guns, active shooter drills at school and mass shootings on the news can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and unsure.

I wanted to talk directly to you about the psychology and developmental aspect of aggression and the impact of both toy and real guns on our children and society at large. This isn’t about me telling you what is right or wrong, good or bad, what you should or shouldn’t do with your own child, but simply about arming you with some fundamental information so you can make informed and conscious decisions for yourself.

Many of my patients in the past few weeks have been expressing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the wake of the horrific incident in Uvalde, Texas. If you or your child are struggling with these feelings too, stay tuned to the end of the episode when I’ll suggest some actionable strategies you can use to work toward shifting those feelings to ones of empowerment.


Dr. Sarah (00:00):

This is nuanced. I don’t want parents to feel ashamed or embarrassed. I want them to feel empowered to change the narrative because we all have become both desensitized to and also hyper sensitized to guns in different ways in today’s world.

Dr. Sarah (00:20):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (00:53):

Hi, everybody. Welcome to the show. This is a slightly different kind of episode than I’ve done before. I wanted to address something that’s happening topically in the news that feels really urgent. That feels really pressing. I also want to give you guys a quick heads up. If you’re listening to this episode in the car with your kiddos, we’re gonna be talking about some heavy stuff today. So this would be probably a good time to hit pause and maybe revisit this episode when you’ve got some alone time. But this is, this is a hard episode for me to record truthfully. I have a lot of feelings about it. This hits home for me very personally, as I imagine it does for any parent. But we’re gonna be talking about guns today. We’re gonna be talking about a lot of different ways to think about guns and a lot of different parts of how guns are playing out in our world. Right now, this was intended to be a completely different episode, actually, and I’m gonna get into why. But a lot of things happened in quick succession. And so I’m gonna try to address it all right now. But it started out that I was going to address a post that I posted. A few weeks ago. I was at the park with my sister and there were kids playing with really realistic looking toy guns and like semiautomatic weapons style guns. And I wanna give a little context. So this was two days after the Buffalo supermarket shooting. So my sister took a picture. I posted it on social media with the host of starting kind of a bigger discussion around toy guns. And there was a lot of response to this. I had parents asking me to please talk more about this to please have a deeper conversation about this. I had parents kind of reaching out feeling a little concerned or a little worried that they had toy guns that their children played with and were worried that they were doing something wrong. And I really thought this is a podcast episode. This needs to go deeper. I can’t get into the nuance of all of this stuff on a tiny little Instagram post, and it is nuanced. It is complicated. So I planned to do this episode to explain that nuance, but then the Robb elementary school shooting happened in Uvalde, Texas. And now the conversation is really not simply about toy guns at parks. It is about the fact that we are all dealing with a collective trauma and we’re hurting and we’re scared and we’re angry. And so I really wanted to try to find a way to blend these two related but different issues. And I think it starts with thinking about some fundamental pieces of information that we as parents need to know when we are raising a child in a world that is filled with guns, toy guns, and real guns.

Dr. Sarah (03:43):

Here’s the thing in toys in movies, in video games, here’s always been for a very long time exposure to guns for children, but this was fantasy. This was pretend we are entering into a pretty solid period of time now, where kids are exposed to real guns in a very different context, they are in active shooter drills at school. They are exposed to news stories of children being shot and killed. They are seeing this on their social media feeds, especially for the older kids. Our kids are growing up in a different world than we did. And so I think it’s important to give parents of today’s children information so that they can be educated consumers as we are parenting this new generation of kids. So let’s start by discussing child development and aggression, because I think this is a really important piece to this whole conversation about toy guns. And then I wanna talk a little bit about what as parents we can do when the, you know, responding to not just aggression in play, but the use of actual play guns, toy, plastic guns in play that we’re purchasing for them. And then I wanna switch the conversation a little bit to real guns because it’s all kind of connected.

Dr. Sarah (05:07):

So what is developmentally normal in play? What is when we see aggression in children’s play, how do we make sense of that? Children do express aggression in play that is normal, that is developmentally appropriate. And frankly, it’s not something that we wanna shut down. Children also turn things into guns. They will turn a stick into a gun. They will turn a pencil into a gun. They will turn all kinds of objects into guns. Again, I actually don’t think that this is necessarily a bad or dangerous thing. I think that children are very appropriately acting out aggressive wishes and fantasies in their play. They’re also acting out things that they see in the real world in their play, trying to make sense of it. And they’re also trying to translate internal experiences into action, right? When a little boy wants to shoot at things, he’s experimenting with this desire to have power, this desire to have this like energy in his body translates into something that causes action. That’s actually a schema. That is an important schema for children to play around with. And it’s developmentally appropriate and very typical. There’s a reason why little kids turn everything into guns and it’s not just because they see guns everywhere in the world. So when we see that though, as parents, we can get freaked out, we can have really strong reactions to that. And I understand that.

Dr. Sarah (06:42):

I think that’s also an appropriate response in us. We are scared of guns. It’s scary. We have learned in our exposure in the world today that guns are really scary and they’re really dangerous. And when we see our child playing with guns we can have a really big reaction to that. Let me caution you against having a really big reaction. If your child turns something into a gun, because all of a sudden you are now taking whatever it was that they were playing around with and making it not about that, but about this dynamic between you and your child. Ooh, Mom had a really big response to that. That really shook her up. Now I’m intrigued. What is gonna make her have that response again? This gun thing seems to be really sensitive to her. You know, so now all of a sudden guns are intriguing and more enticing. Not because of the gun, but because of our reaction to it. So we wanna be a bit neutral. We wanna be a bit nonchalant. The other reason why I don’t want us having really big reactions and shutting down aggressive play in our kids, whether it’s guns or other types of play aggression, like I wanna smash all my toy trucks together, or I wanna bash this baby doll into the floor. The thing is, our kids are actually communicating something to us when they do this.

Dr. Sarah (07:59):

And if we shut it down, we’re, we’re closing the door to potential well of information into their inner world. When we see aggressive play in our children, we can use play therapy to kind of inform our reactions or lessons we learn from play therapy to inform our reactions. Now I know you guys have not been likely trained in play therapy. I know a lot of therapists listen to this podcast, so you might know what I’m talking about, but if you’re a parent and you’re like, I don’t know how to do play therapy. Okay. So one of the things that we do in play therapy is when we see something, we get curious, we try to open up space for it. Even if it’s not like a socially acceptable behavior, right? We are asking open ended questions. We are trying to stay with the thread to see where the child takes it to go deeper with them. So when your, like, let’s say your child smashes their toy cars together, you might say something like, oh, you smashed your toy cars together. So you’re just naming what you’re observing. You’re not saying, oh, we don’t do that. That’s bad. Or that’s dangerous. We don’t, it’s not good to, you know, cars are for driving, right? We don’t wanna close off the open-endedness of their play. And we don’t wanna close off the possibility of where this child can now take this. So I might say something like, Hmm, you smashed your toy cars together. I wonder what will happen and pause and let them ignore you and keep playing and show you, or maybe they’ll have a response for you. And the goal is to get more information and lead to a narrative of how they might be feeling. And sometimes they’re not them. Sometimes they’re the car. Sometimes they’re the driver of the car. Sometimes they’re the policeman who comes and rescues everyone. After the cars are smashed, like kids, project parts of themselves onto all the players of the play. It’s like a giant Rorschach test, right? They’re just telling you all the different things and they are acting it out. So we wanna keep our reactions casual, nonchalant. We can set limits around aggressive play, right? In a play therapy space. It’s very contained. It’s very safe. There aren’t any other kids around. No one’s hurting anybody. If you have a child who’s playing at the playground and they’re turning a stick into a gun, you can say, oh, I don’t want you pointing that at any other people. If you wanna shoot that stick like a gun, you can point it at the rocks. You can point at the ground. You can point at the trees, but not at any people, right? You could set a limit. It’s also healthy to remember that kids are, they have this pent up aggression in them. It is far safer for it to come out in the form of play, where they’re processing their aggression, experimenting with their aggression, exploring their aggression, rather than physically acting out that aggression in real life. Right? I would much rather have my child smash cars together than hit another kid because they are experimenting with aggression.

Dr. Sarah (11:06):

Now I wanna sort of make another point here, a child turning a stick into a gun and a parent buying them a realistic looking AR-15 are two pretty different things. Now I know that parents buy toy guns for their kids. You know, it’s, they’re sold all over target, right? This is not like you have to go to like some back alley to get this. This is a very normal thing. I grew up. We had the little silver cowboy guns that like you had in the holster, right? Guns are part of children’s play. They have been in our culture and our society. But then we have to ask ourselves the question of why. Why are there guns so ubiquitously, interwoven into our culture and our society that parents are buying these for kids to play with? We need to think about how playing with realistic looking guns can desensitize our children to the severity of this object. Now, if you do buy your children toy guns, I’m not saying you can’t do that. I’m saying think about it. Be intentional about it. Think about how can I use this as an opportunity to have a conversation with my child about the difference between a play gun and a real gun. I might even ask my child, what is the difference between a toy gun, a real gun? What do you think it feels like for other kids to see these guns when you’re playing? What happens if they don’t know what’s fake? So we’re trying to help them build reflective functioning. Think about other people’s perceptions. Think about the meaning of these objects from a greater lens. We can help them to understand the difference between play and reality. We can help them have social skills to ask permission, to play this game with someone else before pointing a gun at them, making sure they’re comfortable, right? We’re teaching them ways to have pro-social skills.

Dr. Sarah (13:06):

So I’m not saying you can never buy your child toy guns just use as an opportunity to open up a conversation and perhaps use it as an opportunity to double check and make sure you’re not just buying it cuz it was something you saw while you were walking down the aisle at target and your child said, oh, I want that. And you said, all right, no problem. And you threw it in the cart without really thinking too much about it. Maybe pause and think a little bit more about the bigger picture. Do I want my child to be sort of desensitized to this object? Do I want this to be something that lives in our playroom that could be seen all the time and played with at all times? Do I want something that is a little bit more open-ended? If my child wants to use a block like a gun, great. I’m not gonna shut that down, but they could use that block as a phone. They can use that block as a car. They can use that block as a sword. They can use, anything. When you have a gun sitting in the toy chest, that’s a gun, it’s always gonna be a gun. So we don’t have to give them those toys for them to have opportunities to play out this stuff. We can let them be creative and come up with their own ways of playing. And, and I think that there’s just a little bit more options there for our kids. I also want us to think about not just our child’s desensitization to guns, but also the social sort of component. Right? If my child is playing with a gun at a public park, am I thinking about how that’s gonna be received by the people around my child?

Dr. Sarah (14:44):

Are they, is my kid gonna be stared at, by other parents? Are they going to be pointed at, are they going to see people whispering and, and paying very close attention to them? Are parents moving their kids away from them? How might that feel for my child? My child might not be able to understand the complexities of that situation, of that dynamic, right? They might just feel ashamed or, or, or confused. And we, we can protect our child from that situation by maybe not having them bring a very societally, emotionally charged object, play object to public spaces. What if you don’t use guns in your, in your child’s play and your child’s at the park and you sees a child who does have a toy gun and is frightened. What can we do to support them? Right? We don’t wanna shame that other child they’re a kid playing. They don’t really understand what they’re doing, right? That’s really still a conversation about parents’ choice, about what they’re bringing into their child’s play. That filter starts at the parents, not the kid. So how can we help our child one feel safe, one, understand, again, like how they’re feeling. You can ask them, how did it make you feel when you saw that kid with a gun at the park? We don’t wanna label things as good or bad, or make someone the villain and someone the victim. But we can also use this opportunity to remind our child, to review our own family values and to recognize that different families have different values. And we don’t wanna shame the other kid for playing with a gun as the parent, but we can also help our child understand that, you know, in our family, we choose not to play with guns. And we also could help our child build social skills around learning how they can communicate their boundaries. Can you say, I don’t wanna play that game. Or can you put that toy away while we’re playing together, I don’t like it. So at the end of the day, this is nuanced. I don’t want parents to feel ashamed or embarrassed. I want them to feel empowered to change the narrative because we all have become both desensitized to, and also hyper sensitized to guns in different ways in today’s world. And so I think there are ways that we can reduce our exposure to them, and also ways that we need to get comfortable having conversations when we can’t reduce our exposure to them.

Dr. Sarah (17:13):

But here’s the big pivot, right? This is a much larger issue than just parents and kids and toys. The gun industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. And with that money and power comes a much more complicated system. We do need to talk about the fact that toy companies are creating toy guns and that they are marketing and advertising them to young children. There’s a problem there. That is a big problem, but also the toy are kind of the tip of the iceberg here what’s even larger and far more insidious below that surface are the actual real gun companies who are very motivated to glorify guns and to create a culture around guns as being idealized and highly desirable. And frankly, just cool. And this is where the lines start to get blurred. We’re really not talking just about toys anymore, but the priming of children to be ponds in a bigger orchestrated manipulation around the ideology of guns in our society that is being very carefully manufactured by the gun industry. The gun industry is really motivated to create a loyal almost cult-like customer base. They want it to be embedded in every part of our identity as a society. They want fathers to want to buy a gun for their son. They want little boys to look at a gun and wish they had one for themselves. And I’m talking a lot about boys and fathers here, because that is where the marketing is highly targeted to. These are vulnerable populations in that they are getting blasted with media attention and targeted advertising all the time. It’s not happening to girls and women as much because that’s just not how all these algorithms work. But at the end of the day, this is not about boys and dads or moms and daughters. It’s about our society as a whole. And we need to look where this marketing has its roots and we need to be educated consumers of what it is trying to sell us because it is a very toxic thing.

Dr. Sarah (19:40):

And so let’s talk a little bit about the messaging and where they’re coming from. And the marketing. I read a New York Times article recently that was talking all about different gun companies that were targeting very young kids with advertising and idealizing young children’s use of weapons, right? The Daniel Defense, which is a gun company, they had an ad that shows really young kids using guns with their families. This is an intentional strategy to increase idealization. And then as a result sales of guns, there was another ad they talked about that showed like Santa Claus in a military helmet, smoking a cigar and holding a rifle. And then there’s all the rhetoric that comes out whenever there’s a shooting. And we know that after shootings, mass shootings, gun sales skyrocket, and it is because gun companies are pushing a narrative that politicians are gonna try to take back all the guns. So hurry up and get them while you can and creates this immense urgency to buy. This is so manipulative and it is completely transparent, I mean, it’s really obvious that this is so self-serving and it is completely about selling and making money and manipulating our culture and our society to do so.

Dr. Sarah (20:56):

So let’s talk a little bit about the politicians involved in this too, because they are not without some bag holding at the end of the day. There is a lot of money going around. The NRA lobbyists and other gun groups put money into politicians hands to make sure that their agenda is supported. This is so much bigger than your decision of whether or not to buy a toy gun for your kid in the aisle at the toy store. It is about being an educated consumer and understand just how manipulated we are being and by whom so that we can really actually make informed decisions and make choices that are actually aligned with our values. And not because we have been sort of desensitized to the marketing of this.

Dr. Sarah (21:45):

So what can we do? How can we become educated consumers? How can we understand, how can we use our voice? I had a parent reach out to me after I posted some things about gun reform. And she said, and it was such a moving question, and she said, it’s so overwhelming. How can we change the minds of the people who are so steadfastly entrenched in guns? And I thought about it for a minute. And I was like, you know what? That’s not the task. Fortunately. Because if it was, it would be impossible. The reality is, the people who are deeply entrenched in gun rights are a minority of our country. The majority of people, even, even NRA members, the majority of people in our country want gun reform. They want there to be background checks. They want there to be ways in which you cannot just go in and buy a gun without any checks and balances. That’s not safe, and most people don’t want that to happen. But the problem is the minority of people who have a lot of money invested in keeping guns, manufactured and purchased and out and about in our society are the ones that are, have the biggest loudest voice. So what do we do? We don’t need to convince all the people who are really into guns that we don’t need to have gun reform. What we need to do is convince the majority of our country to get loud, to put pressure on the politicians that represent them, call your representatives. And I’m gonna give you a very specific action item here that I have done. And I think it is very easy to do. And I’ll put all of this in the show notes. 

But go to house.gov. And if you go there, you will see in the upper right hand corner, it says, put your zip code in to find your representative, just put your zip code in. And it will tell you who your representatives are. Go click on the name and it will take you to their website. Look at their contact page. And there will be phone numbers, save the phone numbers for the DC office and for your local office. If they just have one, then just save the one. And call that number, call it regularly. I will put in the show notes, a script that I found online that is very helpful so that you can just have a succinct script that you can literally plug and play and call.

Hello this is (YOUR NAME) from (YOUR TOWN).

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, in which 19 children and two adults were murdered, is another instance of the tragic gun violence we witness in America all too often.

As an elected official, it is your job to take action to prevent these senseless tragedies from happening. It is past time that the Senate take bold action to protect our communities. That starts with urgently passing common-sense gun safety legislation and confirming Steve Dettelbach as director of ATF to ensure the agency has the leadership needed to fully enforce our country’s gun laws.

We cannot wait for more lives to be lost to take action. Please do the right thing and pass gun safety legislation. Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (24:21):

But the thing is, there’s two things. One we need to call. And the other thing is a lot of people are wondering, like if I have a representative who’s already for gun reform and is aligned with my values, why bother calling? The reality is if you have a representative who’s aligned call anyway, you are not asking them to support you are asking them to make laws. Those are not being done right now. So we need them to take action. They need to know that their constituents, their voting majority who puts them and keeps them in office are in support of them, actively pushing new legislation to create safer gun laws. Now, if your politicians don’t agree with this call every day, call even more. But don’t think that just because your political representatives are aligned with your values, that you don’t need to call because we need them to take action. I live in New York. My representative is Jamaal Bowman. He is aligned with gun reform and I’m still calling him to let him know awesome. Keep it up. And also these are the laws that we think should be in place. Another great resource with scripts and other suggestions for actionable policy changes is everytown.org. So I’ll put house.gov and I’ll put everytown.org in the show notes. I’ll put a script in the show notes, but this is something that is accessible. It is free. It is doable. And if you want to get more people, don’t worry about convincing people who are un-convincible to shift their views, worry on helping people understand that they have really simple ways they can make their voices have impact, cuz there’s a lot more voices that agree on this subject.

Dr. Sarah (26:10):

Now I wanna bring this all back to this idea of like, where does the psychology of all this fit in? Where does the mental health component fit in? When really scary, horrible things happen we often feel, very understandably, helpless, which can lead to a feeling of hopelessness or even depression, certainly anxiety. But the thing is we need to address that helpless feeling. And one of the ways that we can balance out that feeling of helplessness is through action. This idea of like, hopelessness and helplessness and paralysis has come up so much in my sessions with patients over the last couple weeks and not just for themselves, but for their children. And so one of the things that I think that we’ve been talking about in our sessions is, you know, how do we turn this feeling of helplessness into action? Yes, of course. I just gave you a huge action item that you can go and do. And that’s something that you can, you know, take action on and you can make it as big or as small as you possibly want to. But it doesn’t have to be something even that big action can just mean taking a walk. Action can mean having a conversation with our kids about their feelings. A talk at the dinner table about our family values, that’s action. That’s gonna counter balance that feeling of helplessness that comes with these traumatic events. Ways that we can offer action items to our children is particularly with older kids, involve them in some form of action or activism. If they want to invite them to follow their lead, maybe the family can call the state Senator together. Maybe an older kid wants to write a letter to their representative. They don’t have to. It’s just something that you can offer.

Dr. Sarah (28:13):

With younger kids, let them be kids, let the action be for you. And unless your child is seeking out something to help them feel this way, or they’re coming to you in distress and you are understanding like, oof, my kid needs something to give them an anchor, something to give them a sense of agency and control in this feeling of out of controlness. These are really helpful strategies if that’s happening, if it’s not, you don’t need to introduce it to them, right? You can process this on your own and keep it personal for you. One of the things that we can also do as parents tying it back to the whole original idea for this podcast episode, when it comes to toys, is do an inventory of your child’s toys. Maybe we swap out the squirt gun for water balloons or one of those water pumps that squirts the water out. So it’s, you know, you’re still getting that fun action and it’s not a gun. You know, we can, we can start to be intentional about the toys that we’re bringing in. We can start to be intentional about the toys we already have. And that is one thing that you can do today.

Dr. Sarah (29:21):

In closing, I just wanna emphasize this one piece. I care so deeply about the mental health and wellness of the parents and the families that I work with and of our society at large, but guns are not a mental health crisis, they are a gun crisis. We need as a society to talk about gun safety. We need to use our voices. We want to be educated consumers of the media and marketing that we are listening to because that’s gonna inform the narrative that we’re promoting when we purchase these materials, whether it’s on purpose or completely inadvertently. So there is no right or wrong here. When it comes to toys, I’m not telling you what toys to have or not have. There isn’t really a right or wrong. And I don’t want this to be a place of judgment of parents for the kinds of toys they buy their kids. If you want to buy those kinds of toys, go ahead. Just use it as an opportunity to be intentional. But also make sure you have all the information so that you actually can make an intentional and conscious decision. A lot of times we weren’t doing that. We just bought it cuz we thought why not? And as soon as you actually think, why not a lot of valid reasons come to play.

Dr. Sarah (30:41):This is clearly one small piece of a much larger discussion. This is full of nuance and it is heavy and it holds a tremendous amount of emotions. If you have questions about this, DM me. I wanna hear what you think about this idea. I wanna hear if you are concerned about certain toys you have. I might not have all the answers I’m telling you straightforwardly. I don’t know all the answers, but I wanna talk about it. I wanna learn. I wanna be able to understand what’s the feeling, what’s the temperature of all the parents out there around these toys. This has been a tough couple of weeks. If you need additional support, reach out to a therapist. If you’re in New York state, you can reach out to me and I can help you get set up with a clinician, either through my group practice, Upshur Bren Psychology Group, or try to help you find referrals in your area. And if you are not in New York, try to find a local resource in your area where there are listings for mental health providers. Let’s keep this conversation going, and don’t be a stranger.

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55. Parenting through an American gun crisis: Helping parents feel educated, informed and empowered