How to Talk to Your Child About September 11

What to say, and not say, about this seminal day in American History

September 11 Memorial, NYC. Getty Images

At one point or another, grade-school age children will learn about the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, which occurred on September 11, 2001. Every year, as our nation commemorates the September 11 attacks, children across the country will be reminded about that watershed moment in our nation’s history. The attacks took the lives of thousands, forever changed the lives of the victims’ family and friends, and, indeed, irrevocably altered the way America views and safeguards against terrorism.

Grade-school age children are also learning more about the world around them as they study neighborhoods, learn about their cities or towns, and even about other countries. They are learning about history, and significant events that shaped our nation. Naturally, they may hear about September 11 at school, or may learn about it from friends.

School-age children were either not born yet in 2001 or are not old enough to recall the horrific events we experienced on September 11. To them, the events of that terrible day are as intangible and far-removed from their lives as World War II is to their parents’ generation. But we can help them understand what happened on that day.

Helping Your Child Understand the September 11 Attacks

  • Be brief and stick to the facts. Talking to your child about terrible events in history or in the news is not easy. If a child asks why innocent people were killed, or why bad people exist, try to answer honestly but briefly. For instance, tell him that sometimes, a person or a group of people can believe something and don’t want others to disagree; these people may resort to violence and threats to get what they want, and they are called terrorists.
  • Go light on the details. A school-age child does not need to know the specifics about how people died or what they may have experienced moments before their deaths. And getting into details about, say, who the terrorists were and what they wanted can lead to additional questions, which may be overwhelming and frightening for a young child. With older grade-school age children, you may want to add a few more details of they have questions. But as a general rule, when it comes to talking to children about scary events, steering clear of specifics is the best approach.
  • Don’t watch news coverage of 9/11 memorials with your child. Unless it’s a program specifically produced for children such as Nickelodeon’s What Happened?: The Story of September 11, 2001, be mindful of the fact that coverage of 9/11 may include emotionally-wrenching and possibly graphic images and stories that are not appropriate for young children.
  • Encourage questions; clarify misunderstandings. Don’t be surprised if a child comes to you with outlandish ideas of what happened on September 11. Often, young children embellish news events with their own ideas about what happened, and then share those beliefs with their peers. Give your child the facts so that she knows what did and did not happen. And be sure to let her know that she can come to you with any questions.
  • Expect repetition. As with other topics, children often process information and feelings through repetition. He may ask the same question several times, or want to go over the events again. (Kids may deal with the death of a loved one and the grief of a loss in a similar manner.)
  • Reassure them. Young children are naturally focused on how things will affect them and those they love. They may worry that someone could attack them or their parents. Look for signs of anxiety, such as sleep problems, and reinforce the message that terrorists are far outnumbered by good people. Also assure your child that many security measures have been put in place by authorities. Children may not make the connection to airport pat-downs and having to remove shoes to the September 11 attacks; tell them that these are only some of the many ways our country is working hard to prevent terror attacks such as the ones on September 11.

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