It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since 9/11. While the events of that day are seared into the memories of those who were old enough to understand, many children may be hearing about the attacks for the first time. What’s appropriate to tell them, and how do you even begin that conversation? We connected with Diane Partin, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and Medical City Green Oaks’ director of behavioral health – outpatient services, for her expert advice.
Get Prepared as a Parent
Partin emphasizes that this is a conversation parents should prepare for; after all, there will be stories and images on the news and possibly even discussions at school about 9/11. You don’t want to get caught off guard by your child’s questions or launch into the topic without some forethought.
“Take a step back and think about the events as they occurred for you,” suggests Partin. “Remember how you heard about it, where you were. Even if you didn’t know someone there, you have your own story. Think about how you felt and how that day affected you. How did it alter your belief system? And what do you want your child to learn from this?”
That’s the key, whatever the age of your child: providing takeaways about the attacks that have shaped our country for the better. But obviously questions may come up about what transpired that terrible day. Partin recommends taking a calm, gentle, reassuring tone and finding a good space for the conversation, somewhere your child feels safe and where you won’t be distracted. Begin by asking your child what they know about September 11. “That will help you know where to go from there,” Partin says.
How to Approach 9/11 with Your Child
Take your child’s individual development into account as you proceed. Partin points out that even kids who are the same age may have different levels of emotional maturity and ability to grasp the significance of a traumatic event. Partin says that if children don’t understand the concept that some people make good decisions and some people make bad decisions, they’re too young for any conversation related to 9/11. The earliest age for a very general discussion, says Partin, could be anywhere from 4 to 7 or later. And even if your child is in a stage to know about 9/11, the degree of detail you give also is highly variable.
“Even at our level of maturity, we don’t like hearing the details,” Partin says. “You cannot unhear the details. So you want to lead with questions to determine what your child knows and what they think and feel about what they know,” in order to not expose them to too much, too soon.
Throughout the conversation, parents should be keenly aware of their child’s feelings and responses. Their level of curiosity, concern, fear and anxiety will help shape the discussion and ultimately help moms and dads know when to move away from this topic.
“Basically, parents having feelers out, sensing their child’s emotional state during the conversation, will guide a great deal of what is said, or not said by the parent,” states Partin.
Which Specifics to Divulge for Which Ages
While emphasizing that parents know their children best and have to make the call about what exactly to share, Partin says that generally, kids under age 8 don’t need to know a lot of specifics. She recommends talking about 9/11 as a day on which we honor ordinary people who did extraordinary things to protect us all. For younger kids, you might tell them only that there were “good guys” who tried to stop “bad guys” from hurting our country—no mention of planes and buildings. Partin recommends focusing on the bravery of citizens and first responders on that day. “It’s an opportunity to look for the helpers,” she says. “If your child asks if those people got hurt, you could calmly reply, ‘Yes, they did get hurt. They were very brave. They did what they felt was necessary to keep moms and dads and kids safe from bad guys.’”
If your child is aware that planes crashed or buildings collapsed, Partin recommends saying simply, “Yes, that happened.” “I wouldn’t go further in details than what they already know,” she explains. “They may not know how to interpret that information.”
With older children, especially around age 10 and up, more details may be warranted. Continue to frame the information you share or confirm in terms of the heroes of that day: firefighters, police officers and people “like us.” Partin suggests wording such as, “They did what they could to protect us. Here’s what the firefighters did. These are the heroes—this day is about honoring the heroes.”
Reassure Your Child About Their Well-Being
It’s also critical to provide reassurance to your child, so they aren’t terrified of boarding a plane or entering a tall building. “Think about how you felt safe enough to go on with everyday life,” Partin says. “Kids are going to take their lead from you. You can share that you knew that an event like 9/11 was exceedingly rare, that after that day we had a much better understanding of how to respond, and that we now have more security procedures. Tell them, ‘This is why we have metal detectors, take our shoes off at the airport, stand in the machine where we raise up our hands, why we have the idea of ‘see something, say something’”—those are all developments to keep us safe since 9/11. Explain that we as a country learned to do those things to have an assurance that we are safer.”
In addition, make sure your child remembers that there are trusted adults around them. Ask them to list who those people are: Mom, Dad, grandparents, police officers, firefighters, teachers and so on.
An Ongoing Conversation
Partin wants parents to remember that this is likely not a one-time conversation. “Your child will need time to process the information and will probably come back to you with other questions,” she says. Encourage them to be open about their feelings and tell them what you do when you experience those kinds of fears (e.g., you remember all the security measures that are in place, you pray, you think about happy things). You can also tell your child about the intense patriotism that came out of that day and how we have so much more gratitude for the firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers who work every day to keep us safe and healthy.
Finally, keep a close eye on your kids after they learn about 9/11. “Most children can work through that information with the guidance of a loved one,” Partin notes. “But sometimes kids are anxious by nature; it’s in their genetic makeup. If there is a level of anxiety that is concerning you—if your child is losing sleep, not eating, if they are particularly clingy or needy—consult a professional. Talk to your child’s pediatrician and ask for a recommendation for a therapist if it’s something they just can’t get past.”
Local Commemorative Events
Visit DFWChild’s online calendar for local commemorative events, such as:
9/11 Memorial Concerts
–Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s September 11th Remembrance Concert at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10.
–Stars, Stripes & Remembrance concert with Lee Greenwood, best known for his signature anthem, “God Bless The U.S.A.,” at Arlington’s Levitt Pavilion at 6pm. Tickets from $25.
–Mesquite Symphony Orchestra’s memorial concert at 7:30pm and livestreamed. In-person tickets from $11 for adults; from $8 for seniors and from $5 for youth 2–18. Online tickets are $10 for a single ticket; $25 for a family ticket.
–Arlington Master Chorale’s 9/11 Memorial Concert at 3pm, 7pm and livestreamed. Free admission but tickets required.
–Honor the Fallen 5K, 10 and Half Marathon, held September 11 at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. In-person from $28 and virtual for $35; benefiting the Texas Police Chief’s Association Foundation.
–Travis Manion 9/11 Heroes Run, held September 25 at River Legacy Park in Arlington. In-person and virtual; registration from $30 benefits the Travis Manion Foundation.
Photo courtesy of iStock