Talking to Kids About September 11
For many adults, September 11, 2001, feels like yesterday. Almost everyone in the United States and beyond can remember where they were and what they were doing when the World Trade Center in Manhattan was attacked by terrorists on that tragic day. Many New Yorkers vividly remember what the weather was like, what part of the city they were in—and what they saw. While most of us will never forget that terrible day, an event that took place 22 years ago can seem like another era to children. But there are many tips parents can keep in mind when talking to kids about September 11, a discussion that can provide a powerful and useful lesson in resilience, perseverance and community for younger children.
We connected with Erica Miller, a clinical psychologist and founder of Connected Minds NYC, a neuropsychological service that offers parenting support and individual therapy. Miller shared with us strategies for talking to kids about September 11 to help ensure future generations know what happened on that terrible day in history.
Talking to Kids About September 11
Why is it important for parents to talk about September 11, 2001, with their kids?
Our children are constantly listening, learning and hearing things that we may or may not want them to hear. Since we live in a world with so much access to media and information, it is important for us to talk about what is happening and what has happened in the world so that they can process and understand at their developmental level. As parents, we are the people they trust the most, and we can help shape how they think while still feeling as safe as possible talking about such an atrocity.
We also want to talk about September 11 because it is important that our children learn that talking about things does not have to be scary and that we can always talk about anything, no matter how upsetting. Often, when we do not talk about something, children will go to the darkest part of their minds and feel alone with those thoughts. Being able to talk about hard topics sends the message that our children are not alone, and that we can help through their dark thoughts and feelings.
Should the topic be approached delicately? Also, is there any special way to approach it since kids were not yet born when it occurred?
I believe that it is often the adults’ feelings around the topic that is the hardest. We experienced September 11. We felt and feel the trauma. So we bring that to the table. If we approach it delicately, we may send our kids the message that this is something that should be avoided, or that we are scared or uncomfortable. I would approach it with some concrete and developmentally appropriate facts.
Is there any way to talk about the heroic efforts of the firefighters, police officers and others to show kids how the city came together to help each other? Perhaps to show a glimmer of something positive that came out of something so horrific?
Absolutely! The story of September 11 does not have to only focus on one side, especially when we are talking to children, and wanting them to continue to feel as safe and secure as possible. Including in our conversation the incredible response of our police, firefighters, and health care workers, as well as the power of our community, helps to bolster feelings of security.
Additional Tips For Talking to Kids About September 11
Miller shared these five additional tips for parents when talking to kids about September 11:
Check in with yourself first. If you are bringing up the conversation, are you ready? What feelings are coming up for you? Being aware of your thoughts and feelings and your goals for the conversation are key. It is okay to get emotional and show the emotion to your children.
Do not be scared of your child’s feelings. Your child may already know something about this, and the more we tippy toe, the more we are sending information and signals that we can’t talk about this, that this is too scary or too big to talk about. Our children want to know that they can talk to us, that we will be there, and that we are not scared of their feelings. In fact, their feelings are welcome and necessary.
Use factual words. You do not have to give every piece of information when talking to kids about September 11 but know that developmentally appropriate information taking into account their language, social-emotional, and cognitive functioning is helpful. Find out what they know and ask them to tell you if they can. Then, help them to link the dots to create a narrative about this. Having a story gives kids something to go back to, as it leaves less questions for them.
Remind them that they are safe now. We know that things happen beyond our control, and many of us are scared that children will figure this out and become more anxious. We can assure our children that we will figure it out together. You do not have to talk your child out of their worries or fears. This can backfire, and sometimes reinforce our child’s fear, or make them feel more alone. Many of us likely have had similar fears. Validate and emphasize with your child; show them that you understand that they are not alone, and that we can still live safely.
Remember, this is not a one-time conversation. You can revisit it whenever you want, and as they age the information that you will provide will evolve. I find that this helps to take the pressure off thinking that this is your chance to have the “perfect” conversation, because there is no such thing.
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