It is upon us: the 10th anniversary commemoration of September 11, 2001 when the world stood in shock after terrorist attacks on the United States. Chances are your children were not even born or were mere babes when the events unfolded. Now they are at the age of absorbing the world around them and will likely come across some reference, some news coverage, some community event that will introduce to them the tragedy.
With exposure comes questions. With questions come teaching opportunities. Here are some ways to talk with your child about the events of 9/11:
Answer questions about the attacks with facts. As the years have passed since 9/11, our collective memory has slowly hardened into history. This passage of time means that your children might have no direct memory of the attacks of 9/11. Their understanding comes from the myriad sources around them — their families, schools, friends, and media — and as is often the case with so many voices, these sources can sometimes contradict each other. It is important, then, to answer children’s questions about what happened with basic facts and point them to reliable sources of information for further research. Be prepared for your child to ask questions about death when discussing 9/11, and to answer these questions in a way that is honest and developmentally-appropriate. The New York Life’s Grief Guide is useful. Click on “Bereavement Services.”
Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. It’s all right not to know the answer to every question. 9/11 is an incredibly complex subject, with repercussions that are still evolving today. If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest. Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and explore the question together.
Be specific. It can be easy to make generalizations when discussing 9/11. As with many tragedies, some have a tendency to talk in broad strokes; for example, comparing the suffering of one person to another or assigning blame to an entire group. The story of 9/11 is actually thousands of individual stories. Highlight those specific stories to help humanize the events, and avoid stereotypes and simplifications.
Monitor the TV and internet. Around the anniversary of 9/11, programs may include footage from 9/11 itself, and include scenes that are not appropriate for children to view at all or without supervision. Similarly, children may use the internet to seek out answers to their questions. Be actively involved in the quality and amount of information they receive.
Emphasize hope. The attacks of 9/11 showed us the worst in people. But it was also a time when many wonderful, compassionate, and heroic deeds occurred. “Heroes” were everywhere on 9/11 and in the days afterwards. The shock and the sadness also brought people — families, friends, and strangers alike — together in a way that felt special. It is important to remind your children that we are also remembering those heroes and those times. Help your children recognize how their own compassion can prevent future acts of intolerance and violence by reminding them to express their ideas respectfully and to treat people who are different from themselves with kindness.
Some additional resources:
National September 11 Memorial & Museum:
National Association for School Psychologists:
National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement:
Some material used in this article came from 911memorial.org.
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