How to Talk About 9/11 With Your Kids
It's been a tough year to have young children. And now, amidst the coronavirus pandemic and a strange back-to-school season, comes the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Explaining what took place on September 11 isn't an easy thing to do, and the decision of whether to broach the topic should ultimately be every parent's call. But because most of us have been glued to our screens a little more than usual this year, there's a good chance our little ones may pick up on something. And they may have questions.
That's why we turned to therapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer and Doctor on Demand psychiatrist Nikole Benders-Hadi, M.D., for advice on talking about the traumatic event with our children. Keep reading for their tips.
Figure Out What Kids Already Know
For starters, you'll want to learn what your kids already know and clear up any misconceptions. While there is no "right" age to talk about 9/11, it's important to understand that many kids have already heard something about it from the news, social media, or school. "Try to have a conversation with them before they are exposed via other means," Dr. Benders-Hadi explained to Parents.com. "That way, you can dispel any rumors or myths that may be out there."
Use Age-Appropriate Language
Use language your children can easily understand, and give details that are appropriate for their developmental age. A good rule of thumb: The younger your kids are, the more simple and basic you'll want to be. "For young children, you might say, 'September 11 is a day when a big tragedy happened and lots of people died and it makes people very sad to remember,'" explained Schafer. "Older youth will be more likely to engage in a complex discussion of justice and terrorism." No matter how you talk about 9/11, though, avoid making generalizations about specific groups of people.
Answer Questions Truthfully
Dr. Benders-Hadi recommends answering your child's questions as best you can—even if that means admitting you don't know something. Many unanswered questions surround September 11, and you can research inquires together with your child (just make sure to shield them from anything too graphic).
Understand Their Emotions
Take care not to appear anxious when discussing 9/11, or your child might pick up on the fear. At the same time, allow them to express their feelings and emotions about the day. Your child's response will depend on their personality, age, life experiences, and many other factors. There's no right or wrong way to process the information.
Watch Kid-Appropriate Documentaries
If you're struggling to talk about 9/11 with family, you can turn on a kid-appropriate documentary about the terrorist attack and its lasting impact. Consider watching Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming on discovery+ beginning Sept 7. The documentary focuses on the lives of four children (now age 19) whose fathers died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they were born. PEOPLE has followed these children and their families for almost 20 years; they produced the documentary along with Talos Films.
Focus on Hope
Always end with the message that your child is safe and secure, and let them know you'll always protect them. Also explain that lots of brave people work behind the scenes to keep something like this from ever happening again.
"Remind them that since 9/11, many more safety measures have been put in place, like extra screening at the airport," added Schafer. "Discuss all the helpers and rescuers and how the community all pulled together. There were so many heroic people."
Your family can also participate in the 9/11 Day of Service, which seeks to turn the tragic anniversary into a day of unity and service. Charitable acts are done "in tribute to those who were killed and injured in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as well as the many rescue and recovery workers and members of our military who bravely rose in service in response," according to the official 9/11 Day website. Visit the website to learn about ways to volunteer. This year, some projects are supporting local restaurants, first responders, health care workers, and the food insecure.
For more tips on talking to your kids about September 11, check out this guide from 911memorial.org.