As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, parents will be wrestling with a number of questions about the best ways to discuss this landmark event with their children. Here are some suggestions to consider.
By Richard Rende
Start The Conversation: It's a good idea to open up the lines of communication sooner rather than later. It can be as simple as saying "You might be hearing about 9/11 on TV or at school (or on the computer). Let me know if you want to talk about it, okay?" There is no need to do more than that - the only goal here is to let a child know that they can (and should) come to you if they have questions or just want to talk. Some parents may want to wait for their kids to come to them. But as a rule of thumb, it's best to take the lead on any sensitive topic, simply to let a kid know that it's okay to talk about it. This is certainly true for kids older than 6 years of age, and given the coverage 9/11 will receive, you may want to think about starting the conversation with kids as young as 4. When you start the conversation, pick a time when there are no distractions, in part to emphasize what you are saying, and also to make sure you can continue the conversation then and there in case your child wants to do that.
Be Prepared For Many Small Conversations Rather Than One Big One: Kids often formulate questions over time. It's common for them to ask you something "out of the blue" that's connected to something they saw or heard the prior day or two. And they will also be hearing and seeing lots of things over the next few weeks. So it may be that you get a question or comment here or there - but spread over days or even weeks.
Let Kids Dictate How Much Information They Want: If your child wants to talk about 9/11, be an especially good listener and give them short answers so you can let them tell you what they really want to find out. For example, if a kid asks "Did people die?" you can simply answer "Yes" - they probably just want to know the literal answer to that question (rather than how many people died, how they died, etc). This is a general principle to be applied at any age. Kids are very good at pursuing what they want to know, so by following the principle of "less is more," you can be sure to keep the level of information where they want it. As every parent knows, kids differ quite a bit in their personalities - some will bombard you with questions; others might only have one or two. Also, it's difficult for a parent to really know what their kids know about 9/11 (they might, for example, have a friend who talks about it a lot). So just follow their lead, one step at a time.
Be Factual But Supportive: It's important to be factual with your child - you want to provide correct information for them so that you can be their trusted source. This can be difficult with an event that evokes a number of very strong emotions (sadness, grief, anger, etc.). And many parents will be experiencing their own emotions depending on their own age (for some, they were teenagers when it occurred and they may just now be dealing with their own adult reaction to it, or even experiencing new feelings because they are now parents). However, parents will need to remind themselves that the goal is to be honest without overburdening kids with content or emotions that they can't handle (so try not to be too graphic in your descriptions or project your own fears or concerns). You want to make your kids feel safe without delivering false information - we can't say that something like this will never happen again, but we can say that it's very rare, happened a long time ago, and that many people work very hard all the time to keep us protected. You can also say that, in the moment, you feel very safe - many kids are worried about right now, not ten years from now.
Pay Attention To Kids' Emotions: Kids differ in their personalities. Some might not get emotional, whereas others might be very reactive (and seem scared or upset rather quickly). Keep in mind your child's personality and remember that a critical objective is to offer emotional support. If your child gets upset, simply comfort them and reassure them as best you can. This is why we want to deliver information in very small amounts - that way you can monitor emotions very carefully and know when it's important to stop talking and start hugging. If your child does get upset, don't think that it was a mistake to talk to them - remember kids are potentially being flooded with information about 9/11 and the idea is that you want to position yourself as their safe haven because you know better than anyone how to comfort them.
Tightly Monitor Exposure To Media: Part of your discussion may be to talk about how you will monitor exposure to media, particularly TV and Internet. Assume that there will be unprecedented coverage as this is the 10th anniversary - it has already started and will intensify over the next 2 weeks. Media coverage is pitched to adults (unless it is explicitly designed for younger ages), so also assume that the verbal and visual content will be emotional and potentially distressing to kids. Think about it this way - if you are finding some of the footage difficult to watch, imagine what a 7-year-old may be thinking. So it's a good idea to limit unsupervised use of TV and internet until the anniversary passes. That way, you can at least turn off the TV or computer is troubling material comes on, and be there to discuss it.
Keep Life Normal: With the exception of monitoring media use, it's best to try to keep life as normal as possible. So even after you have a potentially emotional discussion with your child, move on to the next thing and send the message that your child's life is not changing. Some kids may be feeling stressed, so distractions are a good thing to help them relax. Keeping as much as possible to routines and normal everyday life is a very good way to make your child feel secure and safe.
Don't Hesitate To Seek Out Help For Your Child: Some kids may experience more than normal feelings of anxiety or sadness around 9/11. This may be especially so if their families have experienced a loss or trauma associated with 9/11, or if they (or their parents) remember the event because of living in the area at the time. It's a very good idea to lean on your pediatrician to gauge the situation and seek out further clinical support if necessary.
This article first appeared on Parents.com. See all of our blogs.