200117774-001
Ian Sanderson—Getty Images

How to Talk to Your Kids about Gun Safety

Apr 12, 2016

Most kids know what it’s like to hold a toy gun in their hands.

But when kids get their hands on real guns, it can lead to danger—or tragedy.

Some families see guns as an integral part of their traditions: taking the kids hunting, or using a BB gun on a backyard target. Others try to keep their kids as far away from firearms as possible.

But however your family thinks about guns, says Kyla Boyse, a certified pediatric nurse in Michigan with expertise in child development, safety and parenting, talking with your kids about them is the best way to keep kids safe.

Subscribe to TIME's weekly roundup of the best, most useful parenting stories from all over the web here.

At elementary age, Boyse says, parents should ask one simple question: “Do any of your friends have access to a weapon at home?” Parents who don’t keep guns in the house may think their kids are safe from firearm accidents, but the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital reports that there are almost as many firearms in circulation in the U.S. as there are people, which means that all children are likely to come in contact with a gun at some point in childhood. And about one in three handguns, according to the hospital, are stored loaded and unlocked.

Parents should continue to ask this question at all ages, but for elementary kids, Boyse stresses, keeping unsupervised kids from getting their hands on guns is the only proven way to protect them. “We have not been able to develop a safety training program yet to keep kids safe,” when left alone with a gun, she notes. Multiple studies show that even when kids have been told not to touch guns, or role-played walking away from them, in real life, kids still go for them. So the best way for parents to protect young kids from guns is to be vigilant about where kids might come across them—and keep that from happening.

Read More: Why Parents Should Not Make Kids Do Homework

Middle school is a good time for parents to have conversations with kids about how guns are portrayed in the media, according to Boyse. “So many portrayals of firearms in media make them look exciting, and a good way to solve problems,” Boyse says. “It’s not a good message for kids who aren’t going to be able to imagine that something might go wrong if they see one of these and pick it up.” Parents can help kids think more deeply about the risks of firearms by asking questions about what kids see in media, like: “Do you think that was realistic? How could they have solved that problem differently?”

High school kids are prone to taking risks and impulsive behavior, and guns can play a tragic role, especially in suicide attempts, with 75% of attempts that involve a gun occurring with a gun stored in the family home. So even as kids grow older, parents with firearms at home should make sure they’re impossible for kids to access on their own. And, Boyse says, all parents should keep talking with kids about their friends and firearms, asking questions like “Have any of your friends ever taken a risk with a gun, or talked about it?” Asking about friends, Boyse says, is also be a good way for parents to stay in touch with kids about their own feelings: the best way to support, and keep kids safe, all through adolescence.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.