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9/11: What To Tell The Kids

It’s the week after Labor Day, and we’re all heaving the creaky machinery back into motion. For New Yorkers, and maybe for most Americans, the once-simple shift forward now comes with a wary look back.

On this 10th anniversary year, the spectre of 9/11 has returned to the forefront with a force. We all remember where we were when we learned planes had been flown into the Twin Towers. But for parents, there’s another moment that may be etched into our memories:

Where and how did you tell your children about the 9/11 tragedy?

We were walking together through Battery Park when we came upon a huge gnarled ball of bronze, a memorial remnant from the World Trade Center. My son, then 5, asked about it. I took a deep breath and tried to collect my thoughts.

Before I’d exhaled, my husband had distracted him with a double decker bus.  Later I wondered whether we should have seized that opportunity. I am all for telling the truth to children when possible. But I must admit to having been in no hurry to tell him that our city was attacked by terrorists, felling our biggest buildings and ending thousands of lives. Growing up in America pre 9/11, we had no frame of reference for this kind of tragedy. It’s natural, I guess, that we’d want to provide our children with the same cushion, not just to keep them safe from harm, but to keep them safe from anxiety.

We didn’t bring the topic up again, and figured we’d just wait for that inevitable moment when he asked. The moment never came. One day, he just started talking about the attacks, which, apparently, he’d learned about from a friend. His information was off, but he didn’t seem particularly traumatized. We cleared up the inaccuracies, and I took this as a lesson. The next time my son asks about something important, no matter how difficult, I would like to be able to answer.

But what do you say? How do you relay the magnitude of the story while making sure your kids feel safe? Parents’ resource Commonsense Media has come to the rescue with some solutions from Dr. Mary Pulido, executive director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

She suggests keeping it simple and age appropriate, with something like this:

“On 9/11 there were some people who didn’t like the United States. They wanted to hurt us, so they flew a plane into a building to try to scare all the people in NYC and around the country. Many people died that day. It was very sad for all of us.”

Here are some more of her suggestions:

Let them know you’re there to listen to their questions and concerns. Some children will talk, and some won’t. Both of these reactions are OK. What children need is reassurance that you’re available to answer their questions when they’re ready to discuss 9/11.

When they do raise it, you can ask, “What do you want to know about 9/11?” Or, “Why do you think we’re remembering the anniversary of 9/11? ” Keep your conversation age-appropriate.

Find out what frightens them, and address it. Most children will want to know the bottom line: Will I be OK, will you be OK, and is this going to happen again? Their emotions will vary based on their age, personality, religious background, and their connection to the attacks. Also, keep in mind that trauma is cumulative in nature. So if your child has experienced other traumas in their life, the 9/11 anniversary may put them at risk for higher distress.

Stick to the facts. Children may have heard many different and possibly conflicting stories that could cause confusion for them. Be concrete.

Your child may then raise issues about death and what happens afterward.Depending on your beliefs, answer these questions as best you can.

Monitor the TV and the Internet. If children want to watch the memorial service or newscasts, watch them together. Be an active participant in monitoring the type of information they receive. Most children under the age of 6 or 7 probably shouldn’t be exposed to the media images of the day, as developmentally, they may still not be able to distinguish fact from fiction. I recommend that parents diligently monitor the TV, computer, newspapers, etc. to make sure that children are not exposed to the graphic, violent repeats. You can’t “unsee” something. Research following 9/11 showed that levels of Post Traumatic Stress symptoms increased as people’s time watching the planes crash into the buildings, the towers imploding, and people fleeing increased. My guess is that the media will be playing these upsetting, dramatic news clips many times over in the next few weeks.

There were many heroes that day and the days beyond. Talk about the amazing efforts of the police, firemen, and other first responders and medical providers on that day. It’s also good to let kids know how everyone in the community banded together to support each other and that the sense of caring for others and patriotism was at an all-time high. The anniversary is also a day to recognize those people. It also provides an opportunity to discuss how important it is to treat others with respect and dignity — even if we don’t agree with their views or they seem different from us. Emphasize kindness and hope.

 

She also offers lots of other ideas and scenarios to consider in addressing this difficult topic with your child.  Check the full article out here.

And here’s another article about teaching kids about 9/11.

What do your kids know about the 9/11 tragedies? When did you tell them?

photo: Park Service

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