9/11 and Kids: Talk About It!
The explosive impact of the planes, the unfathomable collapse of the towers, panic in the debris-clouded streets, stunned faces, grieving families. The inescapable images of Sept. 11 that overwhelmed us a decade ago will once again dominate the airwaves as we mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Reliving the trauma of that day is difficult enough for adults, but requires special consideration for children.
Some parents may hope to avoid the onslaught of media images this weekend, but avoiding questions from children is not the way to go, according to Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s and the hospital’s National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
“If you don’t talk to your children, you’re more likely to make them anxious,” says Schonfeld, who worked with children in New York City schools following the attacks. Children may not know exactly what’s going on, but they will pick up on the stress, he adds. “If parents have difficulty coping, their children do, too.”
Dr. Schonfeld and Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., the crisis center’s program coordinator, say the first step for parents is to start conversations with their children about the 9/11 attacks. Adults worry that bringing up the topic will upset children, but without parental guidance, children may have difficulty fully understanding what took place and making sense of what they’re seeing on TV or online.
Ask your children what they’re thinking and worrying about, advise Schonfeld and Gurwitch. Get them to talk about their concerns and questions and then listen patiently. Parents should offer their own thoughts and feelings on 9/11, including effective strategies for coping with stress.
Adults can also use the anniversary as a way to teach children about diversity, respect and tolerance. Remind children that even though one group of people carried out the attack, it’s no reason to fear people from certain ethnic groups or religions.
Parents can encourage children to take action by helping charities that support the military or another community effort. If a child expresses interest, parents may also consider attending a community service commemorating the anniversary.
While confronting the issue is recommended, there’s also a happy medium. It’s okay to set limits so that children are not over-exposed to media coverage of the 9/11 anniversary.
As parents, we instinctively want to protect our children, but talking is the key to understanding, says Schonfeld. We’re teaching our children to cope with their emotions and develop perspective and understanding in an uncertain world.
The American Psychological Association offers more advice on talking to children about the 9/11 anniversary at www.apa.org.