September 11th brings to mind so many images for us all. Some remember the buildings burning. Others think of the firefighters. Myself, I remember sitting in the family room with three pre-schoolers who were shocked that I let them watch Nick Jr. all morning long. While they enjoyed this un-heard of luxury, I was glued to the computer monitor with one ear bud to protect them from the violent images of the day.
In the long run, it didn’t work. Each of those young boys have grown into young men with their own remembrance of that day.
When talking to children about September 11th, you must take their age into account.
Teens and Tweens
Most of the children in this age group have some memory of the event. But it is a young child’s memory. Seeing the images again can trigger many of the emotions the child felt as a youngster. Some teens, especially boys, may feel vulnerable and try to deny these uncomfortable feelings. It is important to let these teens know that these emotions are perfectly normal.
Talk to the young person about what he or she remembers. Depending on the age, the child may confuse memorials with the actual event. Be prepared for feelings of anger or anxiety. Talk about ways that travel and security have changed to protect us all from a re-occurrence.
Older teens may express conflicting emotions about the tragedy of 9/11 and all of the political and military actions associated with the event. Help the young adult separate the different issues. Explore each of the issues with your child and listen as much as you talk. You may find yourself disagreeing with your child’s opinion. That’s OK too. But tell your child that you disagree without anger or dismissal. It is important that your child feels that all thoughts and feelings are valued.
Few children 11 and under will remember the first 9/11. They have grown up in a world where terrorism is a reality. These older children have never known a world with the Trade Centers or a flight without taking off their shoes.
Older children are very concrete. Talk about the factual events of the day. When talking about the terrorists, use terms like “Terrorist group,” or the name “Al-Qaida.” Do not refer to the terrorists as Muslims or Middle-Easterners or nationals from a particular country. This holds the terrorists responsible, not an entire country or religion.
Impress upon the child how much people came together. Talk about those that helped each other. Look up news stories about the heroes of 9/11: The firefighters, the police and all those civilians that risked, or even lost their lives to help others survive. Explain that this desire to help is the lasting consequence of the terrorist’s actions.
Be ready for “what if” questions. Talk about how security has changed since 9/11. Point out building and airport security. Take this opportunity to talk about your family’s emergency plan. Whom should your child call if Mom or Dad’s phone doesn’t work? Where should you meet if there is an emergency? If your family doesn’t have a basic emergency plan, this is the time to make it.
Children five and under may stumble upon programs, discussion or images of 9/11. Children this young will see these images as an immediate threat. They don’t have the ability to consider and weigh history very well. You may tell the child that the images are from a long time ago. But by September, Christmas is a long time ago.
Don’t try to explain everything. Instead, listen and answer the child’s questions to the best of your ability. Like the older children, be ready for “what if” questions. However, unlike older children, talking about a family emergency plan is more likely to cause anxiety than relieve it. Instead, focus on the adults in the child’s life. Talk about how the teachers at school have a plan, and Mom and Dad have a plan. While in the community, point out the community helpers such as police officers and firefighters.
Ultimately, giving your child a sense of control over their own thoughts and feelings helps them deal with the overwhelming trauma of 9/11.