It is incredibly difficult to explain tragedies like 9/11 to children, especially when we (adults) are still struggling to understand something so terrible ourselves.
“As parents, we should be the ones deciding when and how our kids learn about 9/11, but the fact is even young children may hear about it, no matter how much we try to protect them”, says Ashlee Roberts, Prevent Child Abuse Virginia’s 1-800-CHILDREN Parent Helpline Director and mother of a four year old son. Ashlee specializes in promoting positive parenting techniques and provides support, guidance and education to parents, caregivers and professionals throughout the state of Virginia.
“Regardless of your child’s age, I recommend that you frame it in such a way that you’re not producing unnecessary anxiety for your child, but providing them with enough detail to satisfy their curiosity or concerns. It’s important to find a way to inform them without freaking them out! Also, I suggest limiting exposure to graphic images and videos. Most importantly, LISTEN to what they have to say. Don’t interject while they are talking (even if what they are saying is untrue). Allow them to finish and then praise them for telling you what they know before you begin to correct them” , said Roberts. “Let them know that it’s OK to feel sad about 9/11 and that you’re proud of them for wanting to talk about it.”
- Find out what they know first, regardless of their age. A great starting point is, ‘Have you heard of 9/11?’ Give them time to answer that question and pay special attention to any details they may offer. If they say “no”, it’s up to you whether or not to proceed, but if you do, I don’t suggest going into details.”
- Clear up any misconceptions. While we hope most young kids are blissfully unaware of the attacks, you may be surprised by what they actually do know. They pick up on little pieces of information, and then they make up stories because developmentally their 4-year-old brains can’t make sense out of it. It’s important to correct any misconceptions.
- Keep it simple. There’s no need to go into the horrors of the day. Just share the basics; “9/11 is a day that airplanes crashed into these really tall buildings called the Twin Towers, and then answer their questions simply. They don’t need to see images or video, and they don’t need the details. I do not recommend telling them how many people died, or that people jumped out of windows.
- Make them feel safe. Whatever you say, end with the message that they don’t need to worry — even if, as an adult, you know that’s not necessarily true. You want them to feel that their little world is still secure,” says Roberts. Tell them, “There were so many brave people on that day, firemen, policemen and ordinary people like you and me, who went to help”. Remind them that “Mommy and Daddy are here to protect you, and that lots of people are working to make sure nothing like that ever happens again”.
Elementary Age Children
- Again, find out what they know and correct any misconceptions. School-age children have most likely heard about 9/11 from their friends, in the classroom and on TV; but it’s still important to find out exactly what they know before you start talking.
- Keep it concrete. Now that they are older, you can share a little more information, but they’re still too young to understand the big picture. “Don’t get into politics and the War on Terror,” says Roberts. “Elementary-school kids don’t have abstract thinking. They can’t process different points of view. Stick with the facts. ‘These men tricked people and hijacked the airplanes. That’s why we have to go through all of that security when we fly… relate it to their world.
- Ask them what they think. They’re old enough to start sharing their feelings about what happened. If they say it makes them feel sad or scared, it’s okay to admit that you feel the same way too. Then remind them that everyone’s working hard to keep us safe.
Middle and High School Age Children
- Have a two-way conversation. At this point, you no longer need to tiptoe around the facts. Kids of these ages are developing their own thoughts and opinions about what happened. Hear them out and then talk.
- Limit exposure to graphic images and videos. People of all ages are disturbed by video of the Twin Towers falling. Try as much as possible to steer them away from sensationalized coverage. Find some tasteful (for lack of better words) images that aren’t overly graphic.
- Keep your child’s temperament in mind. Some children handle things better than others, just as adults do. If your child is very sensitive or always imagining the worst case scenario, you need to respect that. If your teen does become distraught, remember, kids are remarkably resilient. Reassure them that you are there to listen to them and keep them safe, and then give it a day or two and they’ll be re-immersed in their own drama, which is developmentally appropriate at that age.
- Model positive behavior. Don’t sit around watching 24-hour news coverage. It’s not healthy for you and certainly isn’t for your kids. “It’s a good message for your child to see you turn the TV off,” says Roberts. “These things get addictive. It’s healthy to say, ‘I’ve had enough.'”
Again, these are just a few ideas! You are the best judge of what to say to your children about 9/11.
If you’d like to receive more information on this topic or another parenting issue, please contact our confidential, toll-free, statewide parent helpline at 800-CHILDREN or 800CHILDREN@pcav.org.
God bless America! ~Ashlee
In 2011, The Huffington Post published an excellent article titled 9/11: Advice on Talking to Kids. Click here to view the article