It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since the world-changing, life-changing tragedy on September 11th. Those of us who watched in horror either from near or far can remember exactly where we were, what we were doing and how helpless it felt to see such devastation unfold.
With this big milestone anniversary approaching on Sunday, TV, magazines and radio have been rife with pictures, videos and commentary. For children who catch a glimpse of this imagery and don’t understand what exactly they’re seeing, it can be a very scary sight and one that is sure to elicit a lot of questions. But the question for parents is, how do you explain something so incomprehensible to a young child without scaring the dickens out of them? Luckily, there are a lot of resources available for parents who are unsure of how to broach this sensitive topic.
For young children under the age of 10, PBS Parents offers good advice on starting the conversation and getting a sense for what they already know. There’s no need to provide any visual content (aside from anything they’ve already seen), but there is a good opportunity to discover how they have processed what they know about the 9/11 attacks. In general, parents should heed the following advice when it comes to discussing the upcoming anniversary and other serious news:
Start by finding out what your child knows. When a news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out what she knows like "What have you heard about it?" This encourages your child to let you know what she is thinking.
Ask a follow up question. Depending on your child's comments, ask another question to get him thinking, such as "Why do you think that happened?" or "What do you think people should do to help?"
Explain simply. Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them.
Listen and acknowledge. If a child talks about a news event and is worried, recognize her feeling and comfort her. You might say "I can see you're worried, but you are safe here. Remember how we always lock our doors." This acknowledges your child's feelings, helps her feel secure, and encourages her to tell you more.
Offer reassurance. When a child is exposed to disturbing news, she may worry about her safety. To help her calm down, offer specific examples that relate to her environment like, "That hurricane happened far away but we've never had a hurricane where we live." Actions speak louder than words — so show your child how you lock the door if she gets scared by a news report about robbers, point out the gutters and storm drains if a hurricane story causes fear, and explain what the security guards do at the airport after a story about terrorists.
Tailor your answer to your child's age. You know your child’s personality and the way he processes information. Make sure you don’t over share past what he’s able to understand.
There is also a helpful page on PBS Parents that breaks the advice down further by age group (toddler, preschool, school age and older kids) and guides parents on how kids of different ages handle news and how best to speak with them about serious events.
Golnar Khosrowshahi, founder of GoGonews.com, a news site for children, also advises parents to tell their own story about where you were when it happened, who you were with and what it meant to you. “Sharing makes this a two way conversation during which some questions can get answered. It can also level the emotional playing field between adults and children. However irrelevant it is to others, my daughters found comfort in the fact that on September 11th, 2001, I saw them for the first time (albeit on a screen of an ultrasound monitor) at New York Hospital where they were born six months later to the day.”
If you’d also want to engage kids with online resources, Scholastic offers a great section online for parents and their kids on 9/11, including comprehensive information on what happened that day, but more importantly, how kids around the country coped and took action to help those in need. In addition to reading about that day and days following, there are also activities for kids that go beyond September 11th like asking kids how they’d rebuild the World Trade Center site if they were Mayor, and What it Means to Be an American.
When you go beyond preschool and younger school-aged children, it’s safe to assume that those in higher elementary and junior high have already talked about it in class and/or have a much better awareness about it than you think. But it’s important to continue the discussion at home. Parents should raise the topic again and answer additional questions their older kids may have.
Last week, Nickelodeon aired a special called, “What Happened? The Story of September 11,” (which can now be viewed on Nick News). Hosted by Linda Ellerbee, the show aims to explain the events of 9/11 in a way that is little more understandable to older kids. There is an explanation of the timeline, personal commentary from people who were kids at the time and insight into the cause of these attacks. Although the most graphic images have been omitted from the broadcast, there are still images from that day, along with talk about terrorism, so it’s not something that younger kids should see. But pre-teens and older can use this to get more clarity on 9/11 and could probably relate to a portion of the broadcast that shows questions from teenagers that ask questions like “Who was behind the attack?” “How could airline security fail to stop the hijackers?” and others.
Finally, to get more perspective on how personal this day is to everyone, you can visit the 9/11 Tribute page on Facebook with your kids and watch video clips of people remembering 9/11 and pledging what they’ll do to honor the 10th anniversary. You can also look through two free apps from the National September 11 Museum and Memorial: 9/11 Memorial Guide and Explore 9/11. The Memorial Guide is an opportunity for those who can’t visit the 9/11 Memorial to read names of those who lost their lives and listen to remembrances from family and friends. The Explore 9/11 app is an equally poignant app that includes directions for a narrated walking tour around the World Trade Center site, as well as images and an interactive timeline from that fateful day.
September 11th still confuses, frightens and saddens us, 10 years later. It can elicit the same emotions in kids, but giving them the proper support, education and reassurance will hopefully go a long way in making them feel safer in a world that they’re trying to understand.
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