Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, M.D. helps discus how to talk about 9/11 with your children.
When my younger son was in first grade, he came home telling us his teacher had been talking to the class about the bad “plane crash” that happened a long time ago in New York City. It was early September and I realized two things: his teacher must have been talking about 9/11, and even though it felt like it had happened just yesterday to me, it really was ancient history to him. I also realized although I had talked to my older son about 9/11 a few times, I had never broached the subject with my little one.
Even though I was in Manhattan on September 11th and had lots of thoughts and feelings about that day, I felt unsure about how to discuss it with my son. How much information should I share? How could I share details that were informative, but without scaring him? What was the right balance here?
Somehow, I stumbled through an initial conversation with him, and it went well enough. Over the years (he’s in fifth grade now) we’ve built on that conversation, and I think he has a pretty good understanding of what happened that day, what it signifies, and what the September 11th attacks’ place is in American history. I know I’m not the only parent who’s felt lost when it came to talking about this subject with their kids—nor am I the last parent who will need to do this.
I reached out to therapists to help parents discuss the events of 9/11 with their kids—from preschool age, all the way through high school. These are not easy conversations to have, but this guide should help you through them.
Should You Talk to Your Kids About 9/11?
It’s completely reasonable for parents to be reluctant to bring up the subject of 9/11 with their kids. Not only can it be difficult and highly emotional to talk about personally, but we also don’t want to frighten our children. Still, experts agree it’s not a subject you can shy away from.
“It is understandable that parents may be hesitant to discuss topics involving terrorism, violence, and death, especially with their younger children,” says Zishan Khan, M.D., a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “However, parents may not realize what their child can handle, even when it comes to difficult subjects like these,” says Dr. Khan.
Moreover, it’s important for kids to learn about the realities of the world they live in so they can be better prepared to handle stressful events that may occur in the future, Dr. Khan says. “For those that may be worried about bringing up such a subject, parents need to remember that children are already being exposed to drills that try to teach them how to properly respond to very stressful events, such as fires, tornados, and nowadays even active shooters,” he reminds us
Additionally, kids may notice that on a day like 9/11, the adults in their life are more somber and sadder. Kids may feel naturally curious about what’s going on. Teaching them facts about 9/11 in a developmentally appropriate way can help them learn to be more empathetic, Dr. Khan says.
Beth Oller, MD, a family physician and mother to four kids, says the top reason why parents should discuss 9/11 with their kids is so that they can hear about it from them first. After all, your kids will inevitably hear about 9/11 in school or other kids—some of what they hear may be misconstrued or inaccurate.
“For parents who may feel reluctant to bring up the subject, remember that they are probably going to hear about these things regardless,” Dr. Oller says. “When they hear about it from you first, you’ll be able to have peace of mind knowing they have the facts and will feel less afraid knowing they can go to you for any questions they might have later.”
Discussing 9/11 With Your Child
Even though 9/11 is something you’ll need to discuss, every parent needs to find their own way of handling it, based on their own comfort levels and on the needs of their individual child. In a nutshell, discussing 9/11 is going to vary considerably based on your child’s age and maturity.
A Preschooler’s View on 9/11
There is no clear-cut “yes” or “no” regarding whether you should discuss 9/11 with a preschooler. “Because every child’s maturity and temperament is different, what one child may find scary and disturbing may not greatly upset another,” says Dr. Kahn.
If you do decide to discuss it, it’s best to keep it as basic as possible, “This will not only ensure the kid doesn’t get overwhelmed or overly frightened, but also that they are able to absorb the gist of the conversation and not feel even more confused afterward,” he says
Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, says if you do touch on the subject with your preschooler, you come from a place of assurance above all else.
“The messages that are effective, relevant, and necessary to communicate to preschoolers about 9/11 or any other terrorist or traumatic event is one of reassurance,” she describes. “It is important to avoid showing a preschooler over-anxious reactivity, catastrophic thinking, negative predictions, and stories that convey hopelessness.”
As Fred Rogers is famous for saying, when it comes to horrific events like 9/11, it’s important to “look for the helpers.” Parents can take that approach when it comes to discussing 9/11 with their young children.
“The younger the child, the more important it is to focus on positive aspects and hopefulness,” Dr. Kahn stresses. “Parents should describe how heroic the firefighters and first responders were and emphasize how the American community came together and became united with one another.”
9/11 From a Grade School Perspective
By the time your child is in elementary school, it’s likely that 9/11 will have been discussed in class. If you haven’t discussed 9/11 much with your child so far, it might make sense to start the discussion by simply asking them what they know about the events of that day, says Dr. Kahn.
“This conversation can help a parent discover where their children’s knowledge lies and also clear up any possible misconceptions they have,” he describes. You can also use this as an opportunity to observe your child emotionally as they discuss what they know. You might be able to tell how much they can handle and what type of information it makes sense to share with them, Dr. Kahn says.
This will also largely depend on how old your elementary-aged child is. The older they are, the more information it may make sense to share, says Dr. Kahn. Still, you want to avoid sharing anything too graphic with elementary-aged children. Dr. Kahn also recommends starting off very generally, seeing how your child reacts, and then gradually adding more specifics
Supplemental material can also be a lifesaver here, as Dr. Mendez points out. “Parents can read age-appropriate materials with the child, encourage the child to talk about their feelings, and promote exploration of the information together to ensure that material is not only age-appropriate but is understandable for the child’s level of functioning,” she shares.
You should still ensure that you are not sharing material that catastrophizes the event or is overly dramatic. “The objective is to encourage information which enhances a child’s foundational understanding and promotes hopefulness even in the face of tragic events,” Dr. Mendez emphasizes
Talking With Your Tweens and Teens About 9/11
As your child grows up, it will likely be easier and easier to talk about an event like 9/11. “The older your kid is, the more likely they will be ready to engage in more complex discussions about what happened on 9/11 and what it truly means,” says Dr. Kahn. “History is a part of every child’s curriculum, and thus parents should approach discussing the subject like they would any historical event or catastrophe.”
If you haven’t talked to your tween or teen about 9/11 recently, you might want to check in with them to find out what they know at this point in their life, says Dr. Oller. Kids this age will also tend to question everything, and want to know the “why” behind things, says Dr. Oller. You can use this opportunity to reassure them that it’s okay to have strong emotions about what happens. “That’s normal and deserves validity,” Dr. Oller assures. It’s also important to tell your tweens and teens that you’ll be around to answer their questions after the conversation is over, she adds.
When it comes to what specific 9/11 topics to talk about, Dr. Mendez recommends that you follow your child’s lead here. “Support the teen by visiting reliable news websites to gather information,” she suggests. It might be appropriate to watch educational videos or documentaries with your tweens and teens.
Dr. Mendez suggests that you build in a discussion as part of this, adding context, clarifying any questions, and emphasizing the ways that people move forward after such horrific events. “Have conversations with teens about the survival aspects, while reinforcing empathy, compassion, and legitimacy of the deaths, pain, and suffering,” she suggests.
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