Talking to Kids about 9-11

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Many of our young kids are blissfully unaware of the significance of today and will probably remain that way for a while. After all, it’s been 13 years since the September 11th attacks. That means that current high school seniors were barely in kindergarten on 9-11-01 and probably have little memory for the events. But some of you will be asked at pick-up today, “Did you know some bad guys flew planes into two tall buildings?!?” Most likely, this was not part of the day’s lesson plan but told to your kid by a very “helpful” classmate (you know, the one who announced that Santa is your parents?). Should this happen to you, try to stay calm – you can’t shield her from this kind of thing forever and it’s best that she get facts from you instead of all manner of crazy info from that kid. Here are some tips for talking about September 11th, ready to or not:
Get the facts first. Visit websites like this one  or  this one for information about the attacks so that you can give your child accurate information.

For kids under age 7, you may not want to bring up this event unless they mention it first. Young kids usually aren’t ready to process something like this (but really, are any of us ready to process something like this?) and the conversation may lead more to fearfulness versus knowledge or understanding. However, if someone else tells your child about 9-11, it’s time to have a conversation.

Once you decide to talk about September 11th, the first step is to find out what your child already knows (“What have you heard about the attacks?”) and clear up any misconceptions as best you can. For example, if your child seems fearful of all Muslims, explain that the attacks were carried out by only a small group of people but that the vast majority of Muslim individuals were devastated and outraged by what happened. Explain that Muslim classmates and their families had nothing to do with the attacks and that your child has no reason to fear them or be angry with them. Next, give a factual but brief summary of what happened, “Before you were born, some very angry men came to the U.S. from another country and took control of four airplanes. They flew the planes into several buildings, including the very tall Twin Towers in New York.” Older children will want to know if people were hurt and you can answer truthfully but avoid giving a death toll, describing gruesome injuries, or talking about people jumping from windows. Kids don’t need to see graphic pictures or video from the events. Preteens and teens may be ready to see video of the plane hitting the South Tower but use your judgment about whether they can handle it.

Keep your emotions in check. Absolutely let your kids know how you felt when you heard about the attacks – angry, sad, scared – and how you feel now when you think about 9-11. Just be mindful of the intensity with which you express these emotions. Your kids don’t need to know that you didn’t leave your house for three days or vowed never to fly again after the attacks. It won’t help them to hear that you wished the hijackers were still alive so you could murder them yourself. Yes – those feelings were valid and you weren’t alone in feeling them. But, they’re too strongly expressed for kids to understand and may cause them undue anxiety. If you’re not sure you can talk about 9-11 to your kids without becoming extremely upset, hold off for now or ask another adult to help you with the conversation. It’s important that children be able to hear the facts of 9-11 in as safe a space as possible. They will probably have questions and you’ll need to be able to invite those questions and field them as best you can, which is very difficult when you’re too upset.

Speaking of questions, the hardest one you will likely get is: “Why?” Why did a bunch of men from a another country come all the way over here to steal planes and fly them into buildings? Why did they kill all those people? Why would someone do something like that? You can spend all day trying to give historical and cultural context for these attacks but the truth is, there is no good answer. There is no way for our brains to make sense of this horrific loss of human life. It’s O.K. to tell your child that you cannot understand it either. Just be sure that you focus on the fact that this kind of thing is very, very rare and happened a long time ago and somewhere far away (this is assuming you live in/near Birmingham). You don’t have to have the answer to everything as long as you can find ways to assure your child that he is safe.

A great way to help your child feel more secure is suggested by our old friend Fred Rogers (that’s “Mr. Rogers” to you). In a 1986 newspaper column, he said that his parents reassured him when he saw scary events on the news so he didn’t feel afraid. His mother told him, “Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” When he did, he came to see that “the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.” That pretty much sums up what happened after 9-11 (and so many other tragic events). Search books and the internet for stories about survivors and heroes. Read and learn with your child about the people who helped immediately after the 9-11 attacks and in the days, months, and years of aftermath. Screen the stories first so you can find some that aren’t overly graphic or too detailed for your child, depending on his age and maturity level. Ask why a person would risk his or her own life to help others. Talk about ways that people have helped your child in scary or difficult situations. Ask your child what he could do in an emergency that would be helpful (e.g., tell an adult, call 9-1-1) and what he should not do (e.g., go into a building that’s on fire). Discuss how he can help in small ways every day (e.g., opening doors for others, picking up trash, etc.). By doing this, you’re giving your child a sense of control over frustrating or upsetting situations and reminding him that, although horrible things may happen, there is much good in this world. There are people who run toward instead of away from danger. There are always people around him who will help him – even if he doesn’t know them yet.

  • If your child seems interested in knowing more, here are some resources to look at together.
  • September 12th: We Knew Everything Would Be All Right by students at Masterson Elementary School in Kennet, Missouri – ages 4 and up
  • Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman – ages 4 and up
  • The Little Chapel that Stood by A.B. Curtiss – ages 4-8
  • I Survived the Attacks of September the 11th by Lauren Tarshis – ages 7-10
  • September 11th: Then and Now by Peter Benoit – ages 7 and up

If those options seem a little too detailed, consider The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (by Mordicai Gerstein), a lovely tribute to Philippe Petit who once walked a tightrope between the World Trade towers. The last sentence notes that the towers exist now “only in memory” but the overall message is fun and hopeful.


About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.

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