One Decade Later: How to Talk to Children About 9/11

KoplewiczThis post is by guest blogger Dr. Harold Koplewicz, President of the Child Mind Institute.

The anniversary of 9/11 is always a painful one and the 10th anniversary this year brings certain things more sharply into focus: We are reminded of that terrible day, of the thousands of lives lost, of how stunned and vulnerable we felt. There’s a desire to honor the dead, the families who bore the burden of the attack, and the things we stand for as a nation. We celebrate resilience and renewal even as we vow not to forget.

We’re aware of all the ways we’ve changed and moved on in a decade, and nothing reminds us more viscerally of how much time has passed than our children. We have our memories and our own relationship to the events of that day, ones our children may not share. Children who were infants and toddlers the day of the attacks are now in middle school. Those who were just old enough to understand what happened are in high school or heading off to college. For many younger children today, 9/11 isn’t something they lived through but a piece of history they learn about in school.

Parents still have an opportunity to consider what they want kids to know about the attack on our country and to talk to them in an age-appropriate way. Here are some guidelines for talking to kids about 9/11.

1. Be age appropriate. If a child is too young to remember 9/11, consider her age in deciding when it’s a good time for her to learn about it or learn more about it. Don’t force the issue. But if you see the time is right, you may want to use the event to invite questions, to take an inventory of what she knows and thinks she knows, and provide more details.

2. Take cues from your child—each individual child, if you have more than one. For those old enough to remember the events of 9/11, let them tell you what they remember, what the anniversary means to them, and how they feel about participating in any commemorations.

3. Don’t answer questions that aren’t asked. Children as young as first grade are learning about 9/11 in school as an important part of our history. There’s no reason to volunteer disturbing or frightening details unless a child has heard them and needs a reality check from you. If he does want to talk about things that are deeply upsetting, try to do so calmly without telegraphing your feelings.

4. Share but don’t impose your feelings. The events and the emotions of that day are still painful to many of us, but let kids know they don’t have to feel the same way. Ten years is a long time, especially in the life and mind of a child, and unless they lost people close to them in the attacks, the memories may not be potent. It’s helpful if they don’t feel you depend on them to perform in a prescribed way.

5. Help them feel safe. Kids want to know, “Are we safe today?” The answer is “Yes, we are.” As a result of 9/11, there is tighter security at the airports and in important buildings everywhere. We are also able to tell our children that the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and many other leaders of Al Qaeda, the hate group that sponsored this attack, have died or been captured.

6. Focus on resilience. If you go to a memorial, talk to kids in advance about why you’re going. Focus on honoring those who died and celebrating the resilience of both the nation and the individual families that lost loved ones. We memorialize people out of respect, to demonstrate that we haven’t forgotten their sacrifice and to stand up for our values and beliefs. We honor those who lost their lives as the buildings fell. We honor the many, many people who helped with the search for survivors and the painstaking and painful job of removing the mountain of rubble left by the attacks. Don’t talk about the threat of terrorism or possibilities for the next terrorist attack.

7. Don’t focus on hatred. Teenagers have a lot of bravado. They tend to be dramatic and extreme, and some may respond to the renewed focus on 9/11 by wanting to lash out. As a parent, say, “I understand that you are angry, but 9/11 happened because of a select few people not an entire population.” Help your child do something positive and active instead. There are a number of great organizations that need support, including Tuesday’s Children, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the American Red Cross.

8. Avoid exposing children to repetitive TV news coverage. Media pictures of 9/11 can be shown weeks before and after the event. They can make children feel anxious and stimulate unwanted emotions, so limit what they see on TV.

9. Don’t feel you have only one chance to talk about this. As parents, you always get a “re-do” to talk about difficult things. It’s better to think of tough issues as an ongoing conversation that develops as kids grow and change. If you didn’t get it right the first time, give yourself a break and try again later.

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