Talking to Kids About 9/11

Depending on how old you are, you probably remember exactly where you were on September 11, 2001 when the first plane hit The World Trade Center in Manhattan at 8:46 a.m. ET. What is a current event for adults is history for many children.

As the news media recaps the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, it’s likely they will show many graphic images, which could trigger difficult emotions and anxiety for some children as well as questions. Many adults are unsure how much information to share.

In a Los Angeles Times article, David Schonfeld, MD, Director, Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement says explaining what happened on that day is both nuanced and complicated. He advises adults to take the first step and start the conversation with children about the 9/11 attacks.

“Adults often worry that bringing up the topic will upset children, but most will have heard about the events of 9/11, even if they were not alive at the time of the attacks. Not talking about it makes them struggle to come to an understanding and to adjust alone without further information or support,” says Schonfeld.

• Adults should ask children about worries and concerns that they have. Then listen carefully, offer sincerity, patience and extra attention when the children express their concerns. Adults should also share their own thoughts and feelings about the events of 9/11, including strategies they have found effective to cope with distressing feelings or worries.

• Teach diversity, respect and tolerance. Remind children that just because one group of people committed a terrorist attack, it doesn’t mean that every person of a different ethnic group, religious group or country would do the same thing.

• Support children who want to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 by attending a memorial service or by providing community service. Encourage them to help with a project that will demonstrate support to the military who are currently working to protect the US from another terrorist attack, or some other means of providing service to others, even if unrelated to the events of 9/11.

Children, just like adults, feel better when they are able to help others. Make sure that the project is appropriate to the children’s developmental level and personally meaningful – let the children select what they would like to do.

Schonfeld encourages adults to remember that the media coverage and discussion in schools and communities can result in a number of grief triggers for some children. Parents, teachers, and other adults should have a strategy for dealing with these triggers, such as setting up a plan about a safe place they can go to if they unexpectedly become overwhelmed.

Read another interview with Dr. Schonfeld on this topic in the Washington Post.

About National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) was established in 2005 with funding from the September 11th Children’s Fund and National Philanthropic Trust and now partially supported with funding from the New York Life Foundation. The goal of NCSCB is to promote an appreciation of the role schools can serve to support students, staff, and families at times of crisis and loss; enhance the training of individuals in school-related professional education programs in the areas of crisis and loss; collaborate with professional organizations, agencies, and community groups to further help students, staff, and families at times of crisis and loss; and serve as a resource for information, training materials, consultation, and technical assistance. Learn more about NCSCB.

Cincinnati Children’s News Team

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