The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is Saturday. For many of us, this day continues to bring up painful memories and trauma. In addition to our own reactions, our kids now may be learning about this day in school and might come home with questions. Discussing what took place on September 11th isn’t an easy task. Here are some tips that can provide some broad guidelines to help parents in these conversations.
Open the Door and Listen
A great place to start is with a “you first” strategy. Ask what your child already knows and clear up misconceptions. Many kids have already heard something about the terrorist attacks from school, peers or social media. Opening the door to a discussion allows parents to dispel any rumors or myths. While some youngsters may be eager to chat others may not. Both reactions are common and normal. What we don’t want to do is avoid the topic. Kids can be wonderful guides for us. Let their questions lead the conversation.
Be Ready with Basic Facts
Children are usually happy to have their questions answered with basic facts. Do not try to share all the information you know and also remember that it is OK to not know all the answers. Terrorism is a complex topic. If you are not sure of the answers, this can be a great opportunity to model yourself as a learner and explore the question together. In your communications, be careful not to stereotype countries or people. If your child’s questions feel repetitive, this may be a sign that they are feeling anxious and need help with containment. In this instance, it’s OK to state, “Let’s talk about one more question today and we can come back to this tomorrow if you’d like.” Be mindful of your own body language, tone of voice and emotional responses. Kids look to us to help them process and easily pick up on our own feelings.
We can anticipate that scenes, sounds and footage from 9/11 may be much more prevalent on the news, radio social media right now. This information is often not appropriate for children. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum site (linked below) is a wonderful resource to help introduce and teach children about the 9/11 attacks.
End Discussions with a Reminder of Hope, Safety and Service
It is important to remind children that they are safe and that there are many brave people around us to help prevent something like this from ever happening again. Consider discussing the helpers, rescuers and how our community pulled together. Identify stories of the incredible and heroic acts that occurred after this attack. In addition, discuss ways your child can help others through acts of service.
Renee Pyle, PhD Child Psychologist Renee has worked in clinic, hospital, school and private practice settings for almost 20 years. She is also an Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences where she supervises and teaches child and adolescent psychiatry fellows. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two sons.