The terrorist attacks on 9/11 traumatized our nation and the world. Here are ways to discuss this event with kids while coping with your own feelings about what we as Americans endured that day.
A Special Kind of Current Event
Like most Americans, you probably remember the exact moment you learned the World Trade Center's towers were burning and a plane had fractured the Pentagon.
This wasn't a military skirmish on another continent. The U.S. had been attacked on its own soil.
A day of violence was followed by weeks of sorrow and haunting images. Americans everywhere grieved. Even now, we struggle for answers.
Speaking about 9/11 as a current events topic--in purely objective tones, with emotional detachment--might not yet be possible for you. That is fine.
As a parent, you can still engage children in a healthy discussion on the topic. Just remember to focus on the facts and address the emotions--yours and your child's.
Prepare For the Talk
Take a few moments to find the right mindset for a 9/11 discussion. These approaches might help:
- Plan to listen more than talk. Doing so can steer the conversation away from topics your child isn't ready for. For example, a five-year-old who asks, ''Why did people hurt the buildings in New York?'' might be satisfied when you tell her, ''Because people sometimes do bad things.''
- Acknowledge that complex emotions could surface. But remind yourself it's the topic--terrorism--that's upsetting, not the conversation about it.
- Remember to watch for non-verbal cues--frowning, bulging eyes, wide-open mouths, wincing--that signal your child isn't ready to hear certain facts or ideas. That's the time to switch topics.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks involve sensitive issues that still command intense public scrutiny. Not addressing these issues at home won't shield your child from them. It will only give kids the impression that, for you, certain topics are off-limits and your child must look elsewhere for answers and guidance.
But that's not what you intend by having this talk. What you want is for your child to know you offer her a safe space and coping skills she can rely on.
Consider Your Child's Age
''The information on 9/11 has to be age-appropriate,'' according to Lauren Muriello, founder of Well Being Therapy Center in Montville, NJ. And she believes that parents are uniquely suited to filter what is and isn't useful for their kids to know.
Here are tips for choosing what to say, depending on your child's age:
- Preschool children - Use words that your child understands rather than introducing advanced terms. Explain what happened and how the event affects the child's life. You might say, ''Some people crashed a plane into a building and other people got hurt, so that's why your teacher is talking about how we have to be safe.''
- Elementary school children - Children between the ages of 5 and 12 need reassurances that they--and you--are safe. Younger children tend to fantasize about events, so you need to distinguish what is real from what isn't. For example, point out that not every airplane will be hijacked. Also, emphasize how our society has enhanced public safety measures.
- Middle school and high school kids - In this age range, kids might ask more probing questions: What would make people do such a thing? How could American planes have been hijacked? Why didn't the U.S. government know this could happen and try to prevent it? Rather than dismissing their concerns, engage them in the pursuit for answers, admitting that you're just as curious as they are.
Pursue the Facts
Any current events discussion with your child can turn into a platform where you model sober thinking on social issues. The September 11 attacks are no exception.
And what better way to demonstrate how to avoid stereotyping than by helping your child pursue and interpret the facts?
Depending on the child's age, start by explaining the difference between facts and opinions. Then explain how some people rush to judge others without knowing what really happened. If you have teenagers, you might even discuss how ''fake news,''--a topic trending on social media and elsewhere--hampers meaningful dialogue.
There's another benefit to a fact-finding mindset when talking to children about tragedy: facts can normalize the most devastating details, and help you divert your child's attention away from negative feelings.
Monitor Their Reactions
Even if your family was not personally touched by 9/11, your child might still have strong feelings about it. Perhaps a classmate told how his mother worked at the World Trade Center and never made it home that night. Or, your child has seen the paralyzing pictures of people jumping to their deaths to escape the inferno or rescue dogs sniffing through rubble for victims.
Such tragic circumstances are likely to evoke reactions that vary by age:
- Preschoolers might become clingy and look for ways to comfort themselves, such as sucking their thumbs.
- Elementary age children might fear going out in public or flying.
- Older children might deny the event touched them deeply but will argue more often or defy authority.
Rather than criticizing a child's negative reactions, you can validate their fears by steering the conversation in a positive direction.
Muriello did exactly this when her 7-year-old son expressed confusion and sadness after their discussion on 9/11. ''I helped him to understand that most of the world is filled with helpful good people and that our community is safe and secure,'' she told us.
Later, he showed her a rendition of the Twin Towers in flames that he built out of Legos. ''I was moved and proud,'' she said, attributing his positive reaction to their ''honest open conversation'' that allowed him to ''process and express his emotions.''
Muriello decided not to push the topic further that day and believes it was the right decision: ''We did not need to talk about 9/11 for a long time after that because we had created a sense of understanding and resolution.''
You and your child can come to the same place of understanding and resolution.
Tell younger kids, ''Bad things did happen on 9/11, but we're all still here. Our country goes on. We learned powerful lessons.''
Older children should know how our government has taken steps to protect us from terrorism.
And children of any age can be comforted by true stories of the people who showed compassion. Try ending the talk with a message to empower your child to do likewise. Tell kids that by showing tolerance toward classmates of diverse cultures or helping someone in need, they are spreading hope. Say, ''It takes one small gesture from even one person to make a difference. You can be that one.''
Let us know your ideas for helping kids cope with tragedies in the comments below.