Even with the balm of time easing the pain of 9/11 with each passing year, the attacks are still hard for most of us to talk about. Yet parents—especially around the anniversary of the event and its coverage in the media—will have to answer the inevitable questions from children: What happened and why?
To help you find the right words and tone, we offer a primer from the National September 11th Memorial & Museum in Manhattan. “Talking to Your Children About 9/11” is a good guide for discussing that traumatic day and its aftermath.
- First, consider where your child is in his or her development when thinking about what to say. Toddlers and children under 8, for example, should be shielded from the frightening images of 9/11 shown in the media. The maturity of middle or high school kids, however, means they are more able to handle a frank discussion of that day.
- Don’t shy away from a difficult discussion with an older child. You can start a conversation with an open-ended question like: “What would you like to know about 9/11?” and let your child’s queries guide the conversation. To model how a trusting, safe environment is created, share your own feelings and memories about that day. Listen carefully to your child’s questions and concerns, and validate their emotions. It helps to emphasize how much people helped each other during and after the attacks.
- No matter what their age, all children want reassurance. They need to know the trusted adults in their lives are looking out for them, and that they can turn to those adults for support at any time. Whether 9 or 19, children will feel vulnerable, frightened and distressed by tragedies and disasters: They will be looking for adults to say, “It will be all right.” You are your child’s first interpreter and guide through those moments when the world seems out of control. What you say and how you act will go a long way to restoring a child’s sense of safety and security.
In all your family conversations, it may help to impart this insight from the venerable Fred Rogers on the PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
There is knowledge, strength and hope in that sentiment, one in which we all, children and adults alike, can take solace.