9/11: How to talk to your children
This post is for parents/guardians who have already decided to talk to their children or who are now faced with a child who has been exposed to something in an unstructured manner (i.e on the bus or from a peer).
There are quite a few things to consider when deciding how to talk about disasters, war, tragedy or emergency situations with your children. Ultimately the decision is yours, but here are some tips to consider if you must or want to talk about potentially upsetting topics with your children:
1) Consider age and developmental stage
Whether your child is in Kindergarten or 6th grade will make a big difference in how you approach tough topics. Likewise, each child’s temperament and sensitivities should be considered; some children will be prone to fear and nightmares more than others. Most elementary school aged children are ultimately wanting to know that they are safe or that you can provide them with relative safety.
2) Ask them what they know and what they want to know
Find out what your child is curious about, what they’ve already seen and what they’ve already heard. Sometimes they are just curious about one part of that day or one image they have seen. If this leads to other questions, great, take it one step at a time. Try not to dive in with loads of information before they are ready or even aware. If you have an older child who is more likely to come across things on YouTube then you might want to consider telling them the whole story so they hear it from you first.
3) Zoom in and Zoom Out
There are so many images, stories to hear and sounds that can be both terrifying and awe inspiring. And yes, it is important to zoom into those things as your child (and you!) can tolerate. One way to help them through this is to remember to zoom out on the big picture, not just the horrific images and voice recordings from that day. Show them the heroes of that day (and the many days that followed), the kindness from stranger to stranger, how the country came together, how our country’s troops fought for our safety, and the steps we took to keep each other safe in the aftermath.
One thing that came up when talking to my children, for example, was how things have changed since then (for better and for worse); they were so surprised to hear about all the airport security changes that took place to add extra levels of safety. Something that I always think about when in an airport, but I forget that my kids never knew anything different.
4) Of course don’t forget the feelings!
What kind of therapist would I be if I didn’t talk about the feelings!? We cannot always and should not always avoid the tragedy just to protect ourselves from the pain. (Of course, you will have already carefully thought about, if you are allowed the chance, how your particular child will potentially respond and go from there) Allow yourself to feel your own feelings so that your children can know that it’s ok for them to have feelings, too. They may show these feelings right then and there or they could have a delayed reaction. Some children will be sad, others might be angry, others scared or confused, some will be mixed up with many feelings, I know I am!! There is no right or wrong response.
Ultimately, remember that learning about the events as they happened is a way to honor the experiences of those who lived it and perished by it. By never forgetting, we can remember those we lost, remember to hold each other close, work toward freedom and peace, and live with gratitude.