How to Talk to Children about September 11th

The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 is this weekend. As a country we are mindful of the great loss of so many lives that day and the way that our country was forever changed. As adults, we can remember where we were and what we were doing when we saw the first images of planes flying directly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Our emotions ran the gamut of shock, disbelief, horror, fear, sadness and finally, anger toward the terrorists who committed the violent and inhumane atrocity unparalleled on U.S. soil. Today, as the 10th anniversary quickly approaches, many adults continue to struggle with their emotions surrounding the events of 9/11. As difficult as it is for many of us to process, it is important to understand how our children were and will be affected by the events that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Due to wide media coverage of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, many parents may feel compelled to discuss 9/11 with their children. It is crucial for parents to realize that children will vary in their knowledge or interest of 9/11 depending on their exposure and geographic location. Most kids today will not even remember 9/11 because they were too young or were not born yet. Kids who were 5 years old at the time of 9/11 are now 15 years old and it is unlikely that kids younger than 5 years old at the time of 9/11 will have any vivid memories unless they were directly affected through the loss of a family member or lived in NY, Washington DC, or Pennsylvania at the time the events unfolded.

Find Out What Your Child Knows

If your child mentions 9/11, find out what they know first and how they obtained the information. Did they learn the information from TV? Are they teaching it at school? Are your child’s friends talking about it? If your children are teens who may actually have some memory of the 9/11 events, a good way to begin the discussion is to ask them what they remember about that day or the events surrounding it. Once you know what information your child has and the source of that information, you can initiate the discussion of 9/11 with them and correct any misinformation or misperceptions they have about that day, keeping in mind your child’s developmental level. The younger the child, the more simple and brief the explanation should be. After any explanation, ask if your child has any further questions and respond to him or her as needed.

How Does Your Child Feel About 9/11?

As with any tragedy or stressful life event, most kids usually want to know how it affects them. If they realize and understand that some children lost their parents in the tragedy, they may suddenly have questions about their own safety or even about death. They might ask things like: Could a tragedy like 9/11 happen again? What will happen to them if one of their parents were to die? Where would they live? Use this as a time to answer those questions for them in a very specific and concrete way.

Since many children were not alive when 9/11 occurred, they may also wonder how 9/11 affected their own parents, families and loved ones. Share with them what you did when 9/11 occurred. How did you react? How did you feel? Did you do something to become involved and help out? Do you have uplifting stories about loved ones who did not survive? Oftentimes these discussions will lead to other questions related to death and/or faith-based beliefs, providing parents the opportunity to share their family’s values and spiritual beliefs.

Service-Based Coping

When hearing stories of tragedy, children frequently feel helpless. Many children will even feel compelled to “do something” to give them a sense of control in the midst of the devastation. If they do not ask to do something, but appear grief-stricken or anxious over 9/11, having them do something constructive can be very therapeutic. If your child asks what they can do to help commemorate 9/11 or just “help out”, make suggestions such as taking brownies to a local fire station, sending letters of thanks to military personnel or even donating money to a 9/11 fund. Then, help your child to follow through on their service.

Limit Media Exposure

Research studies have shown that children who are continually exposed to media coverage of a traumatic event are more likely to show increases in anxiety and symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. During the next few days and even weeks, media coverage of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath will increase. We highly recommend that parents intentionally limit their children’s access to 9/11 media coverage.

When to Seek Professional Assistance for Your Child

If you and your child discuss 9/11, you may observe your child react and respond in a variety of ways—anger about the tragedy itself, anger towards terrorists, anxiety about personal safety and safety of family members, sadness, and confusion. All these reactions are completely normal. Some kids may be able to articulate their feelings and link their feelings to 9/11. Other children, likely younger children, may have a more difficult time understanding the reasons for their emotions. They may react in ways you don’t understand—oppositional behavior, withdrawn behavior, or separation problems from parents. If your child experiences behavioral or emotional changes that significantly interfere with school, peer relationships, or their own personal well-being (such as altered sleep patterns or eating habits), parents should strongly consider seeking mental health services for their child. If your child’s symptoms persist for an extended period of time beyond 9/11, please also consider a mental health consultation to rule-out potential problems that may lead to long-term adjustment problems.

What Kids Should Know

In spite of the sadness and changes that 9/11 has brought to our lives, parents should stress the positives that 9/11 has brought about. A key to raising resilient kids is to help them identify the “silver lining” or positive change that has come from negative events. Here are some ideas to share with your children:

1) The events that unfolded on September 11th were unprecedented in U.S. history. It was something that had not happened before and, given the increased security, will likely not happen again. In fact, it is much safer to fly than now than ever before because of 9/11.

2) We should continue to show empathy for all the people who were affected by the tragedy. Acts of volunteerism significantly increased after the events of 9/11.

3) Following 9/11, many Americans expressed renewed patriotism.

4) Although it was a great tragedy, it brought out the best in people.

5) We, as Americans, are strong and resilient and can rise above tragedies.