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Talking to Your Children About 9/11

What you should and shouldn't say


Updated September 10, 2012

Talking to Your Children About 9/11

Field of Flags at a September 11 Memorial

It's hard to believe, but it's been eleven years since the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. It was a day that altered our lives forever. Some people think that children who were born after that day are not affected. But that's not necessarily true. Young children don't always have a good grasp of the concept of time. Eleven years ago can be the same as eleven weeks ago or even eleven days ago.

For example, when my son was about four years old, he became very concerned about Polaris, the North Star. He was an early reader and loved to read about space. One day he read that the position of Polaris relative to Earth would change and in 2,000 years, it would no longer be the North Star. He was so upset that he was unable to sleep and no amount of explaining how far in the future 2,000 years actually was relieved his anxiety over this event.

If the event involves people, it can cause even more anxiety. Even if your family does not have a personal connection to the events on September 11, they will be exposed to reminders about the day, particularly when milestone anniversaries come up, like the ten year anniversary. Your children will no doubt have questions and if you don't answer them, they may become anxious about the future. So what kinds of questions can you expect from your children and how should you answer them? What is the best way to talk to your children about September 11, 2001?

What You Should NOT Do

Some children are more emotionally sensitive than others, but no matter how sensitive a child is, his questions should not be ignored for fear of upsetting him. Chances are quite good that the imagination of a child who doesn't get his questions answered will run wild. This is particularly true of children with imaginational supersensitivities. While avoiding the topic or telling our child not to worry is well-intentioned, it can have the opposite effect and create more anxiety than it relieves.

What You SHOULD Do

  • Listen Carefully
    The questions children ask aren't always an indication of what they really want to know. For instance, your child might ask why bad people crashed planes into some buildings. You may want to begin explaining why, trying to figure out how to explain such motivation. However, what your child might really want to know is simply if bad people will do something to his house or his school or the building you work in. He wants to know if he and his family will be safe. Before launching into a theoretical discussion of the terrorists' motivations, try first to understand what the real question is that your child is asking. This is true for any questions your child might ask.

  • Be Honest but Comforting
    Your child might want to know if bad people will ever do such bad things again. If she asks this kind of question, you should be as honest as you can. Answering "no" is probably not the best answer since bad people do bad things all the time. If you tell your child that bad people will not do anything bad again and they learn about buildings being bombed, your child will not find comfort in your answers to questions she asks later. In fact, she might not even ask you the questions to begin with. Answering "yes" to that question, however, is unlikely to provide any comfort. It is likely to just cause anxiety.

    The best answer is the most honest and comforting one: "I don't know." Of course, you don't want to leave it at that. You also want to let your child know that everything is being done to keep the country safe and you will do your best to keep her safe. If your child wants to know more, tell her what you can.

  • Work Out a Family Disaster Plan
    It is unlikely that you will need a plan to deal with a disaster on the scale of what we saw on 9/11, but that really isn't the point of creating a plan. It's a good idea to have a family disaster plan for any emergency, so if your family doesn't have one, this would be a good time to create one. Your child wants to know if he will be safe and needs something positive to think about. Knowing what to do in an emergency will give your child a sense of control, which can help to relieve anxiety created by a feeling of helplessness. The Missouri Department of Mental Health has 30 Tips for Emergency Preparedness that can help.

  • Provide Appropriate Details
    What are appropriate details? The best way to answer that question is to consider the question "Where do babies come from?" When a three-year-old asks that question, she most likely isn't interested in a detailed lecture on reproductive biology. Start answering a question with a simple and direct reply. If your child wants more information, she will most likely ask for it, especially if you indicate that you are willing to provide it. Gifted kids have a deep desire for information, so don't be surprised if they ask for more. They may want to know why the buildings collapsed, for example. If you don't know the answers, help your child find them. Knowing facts is often more of a comfort to gifted children than the unknown. Just don't offer more details than they are asking for. And try not to be upset or judgmental if they begin to ask questions that appear to you to be morbid.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that the ability of gifted kids to understand events intellectually is often beyond their ability to cope with them emotionally. The fact that your young child will be able to understand the events on September 11, 2001, and discuss them with you as an adult, does not necessarily mean that he is also able to cope with them emotionally as an adult does. Some adults even have problems coping with the sadness that comes from revisiting the events of that day. And some gifted kids are already prone to suffer from existential depression, so while you do want to answer questions, you also want to help your child deal with his emotions. Some of the same methods used to help children cope with any tragic event can be used to help them cope with the sadness they may experience as they learn about and commemorate 9/11.
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