Here are some tips on how to talk to your kids about tragic events.
As adults, we all have deeply-etched memories of the tragic events of Sept.
11, 2001. But for children today, that life-changing day is a part of
history that they have only heard about from others. Most likely, they
have many questions for their parents about what happened, what it means,
and how it impacted the world we live in.
“As September 11 approaches, it’s important for parents not
to shut down conversations about that day in history,” says Debbie
Hutchinson, Psy.D., Manager of Outpatient Mental Health Programs at
Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach. “These discussions may be difficult, but it’s
an important topic for this generation of children and, as a parent, you
want to ensure the message comes from you.”
If you have yet to have this difficult conversation or are already talking
about it with your children, here are a few pointers as we commemorate
Listen to your children – It’s important to gauge how much children want to talk about
Sept. 11 and their concerns about terrorism. You can start by inviting
the conversation with open-ended questions such as: “What would
you like to know?” Let the child’s interests and thoughts
guide the conversation. If they do want to talk, be prepared to spend
the time so that children can truly share their thoughts, questions and
concerns. Validate their emotions and encourage meaningful discussion.
However, don’t force the conversation and understand if they don’t
want to talk. Just check in periodically to see if they have questions for you.
Answer their questions – Once you start a conversation, be prepared to respond to questions.
Use words and concepts a child understands, keeping the discussion appropriate
to the age level. Don't overload a child with too much information,
but be honest in answering. Understand that your words have impact. It
can be easy to make generalizations when discussing terrorism. Avoid stereotypes
and over simplification. Talk about the survivors as well as those who
perished, the first responders who helped people and the ways people all
over the world responded in solidarity.
Be prepared for more than one conversation - Sept. 11 is a difficult subject, so be prepared to repeat explanations
or have several conversations because some information may be hard to
accept or understand. Children often repeat their questions as a way of
being reassured. If you sense your children are anxious, acknowledge their
feelings and allow them to talk through their concerns.
Learn more – The events of Sept. 11 are complex and children may have some
questions you find difficult or simply can’t answer. There are a
number of children’s books that can help explain things:
The Little Chapel that Stood by A. B. Curtiss (ages 4 and up)
September Roses by Jeanette Winter (ages 5 through 8)
September 11, 2001: Attack on New York City by Wilborn Hampton (ages 10 and up)
With Their Eyes: September 11th--The View from a High School at Ground Zero edited by Annie Thomas (high schoolers)
Don’t feel like you must have all the answers. If your child wants
to know something you can’t explain, be honest and use the opportunity
to learn together.
Reassure children of their safety – A reality of today’s world is that terrorism didn't
end with the death of Osama Bin Laden. Children will be exposed to more
reports, especially as we saw this year with the bombing at a concert
by Ariana Grande, a favorite singer of many children and teens. Acknowledge
that there is still a threat of terrorism, but try not to raise their
level of anxiety. Talk about the people who are working to keep their
friends and family safe and all that is being done to prevent more attacks
Have a plan - Talk about how you and your family will respond if something unsafe should
happen. Knowing that you are prepared can help lessen the anxiety.
Get involved – Sept. 11 is a day to honor the lives that were lost and put time
and effort into helping build our communities. Find a volunteer project
underway in your neighborhood. Or, encourage your child’s school
to start its own. By taking positive action in the wake of tragedy, we
show our children there is always hope for the future.
Has your child ever asked you to explain a tragic event? Share a comment
about how you guide these difficult conversations in a meaningful way.