How To Talk To Your Kids About 9/11

The other day, the team here at Mommyish got into a discussion about 9/11. A couple editors were practically children back in 2001, when the horrific event took place, and so they remember being in high school and having the day’s tests cancelled. I was at work at the time and, even though I live in Canada, a bunch of our downtown buildings in the financial district were evacuated because nobody had any clue what was going on. We then started talking about our kids, and how on earth we’re supposed to talk to them about 9/11.

Editor Mollie Hemingway admitted that she did tell her toddler daughter that Osama Bin Laden was a “bad man,” and that “soldiers” managed to “get him” in his house. Her daughter then proceeded to build Osama’s house out of blocks for the next two weeks. According to Golnar Khosrowshahi, founder and CEO of (a “safe” news site for young children), this is actually a very healthy way for young children to express their feelings, be it curiosity, anger or anxiety.

We caught up with Khosrowshahi and Dr. Jen Hartstein a New York-based child, adolescent and family psychologist and GoGoNews contributor to discuss the best way of talking to your kids about the September 11 terrorist attacks.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 quickly approaches, children will no doubt be inundated with imagery on TV, online, on the cover of magazines. How can parents protect their children from these terrifying images?
Protecting children against the images from 9/11 is no different than the media consciousness that parents, caregivers and educators need to have today. These include being mindful of what children are watching on television and how they are surfing the Internet. Of course, no one can control this all of the time, but limiting exposure at home will go a long way in streamlining the media messages children are seeing.

Is there a right age for discussing this tragic event openly and honestly?

GoGoNews is adamant about ‘knowing your audience.’ And there is no one better than the primary caregiver to make this judgment. Each child is different and so is his or her emotional maturity. It’s very important to think not only about the child’s physical development, but their emotional development as well. Your older child, who you might expect to be okay in talking about these events, may have a much more difficult time than your younger one.

What’s the best way to handle difficult questions from a toddler or school-age child? For example, my five-year-old just asked me the other day, out of nowhere, “Mommy, have you ever seen a real fire? Not a bonfire one but a real-life one like in a building or something?” I wondered what triggered this question but I simply answered no, that I never had seen one before. Was that the correct response?
There is never a ‘correct’ response to these kinds of questions. It really depends on the primary caregiver and what you think the child can handle. Answering yes and setting the stage for sleepless nights for the sake of conveying the facts is definitely not advocated. But if your gut tells you that your child can discuss a fire, do so while focusing on how we deal with fires. Talk about firefighters and other professionals handled to train emergencies and their oftentimes heroic efforts to help people. You could even consider taking a trip to your local firehouse. All of this will focus on the combination of a devastating event like a fire and the relief with which our society is equipped to handle it.

How can we assure our children that they’re safe while still explaining the realities of what went down that day?
You have to find out what it is your children really want to know, identify what scares them, and address it. It’s easy to provide too much information, when all your daughter wants to know is that you are safe and that she is safe. It is important to validate their worries, while providing reassurance that you, along with the government and other agencies, are doing all that is possible to keep her and other people safe.

How can you answer the question, “But why are people bad?”

This is a common question from children more often asked in the context of the playground bully. Given its simplicity, it deserves a simple answer that there are all kinds of people in the world who have grown up in all different kinds of places and that some are good and some are bad. Getting into any more detail raises more difficult questions which you may not be prepared to answer and your child may not be able to understand.

How much is too much information?
This goes back to knowing your audience and gaging the extent of information your child can handle. The stories of personal loss and a description of how people perished is most likely too much information.

How about if you have an anxious child to begin with. Should you handle the discussion differently?
When communicating with children who are already anxious, you have to strike a very delicate balance between answering their questions and communicating facts and calming their fears. The anxiety generally manifests itself in the child asking, “Will this happen to me?” As parents and caregivers, it is our responsibility to provide information that addresses these concerns and convey how we are prepared for this not to happen to the children in our lives.

What’s the best way to answer other common questions such as, “How many people died?” and “Did you know anyone who died that day?” And, of course, the big one: “Could it happen again?”
These questions are factual ones that indicate that a child already has a grasp on what happened on September 11. Being open and honest about things, while being attuned to emotions, is important. The facts can be gathered everywhere, so your child can find out without your mediation. If you are not 100% sure of exact numbers, and you don’t feel comfortable giving one, you can tell your child that many, many people died. That may be insufficient, however.  Use the opportunity to do some investigating with your child, if you think he or she is ready for that, and see what you can find out together.

There are actually benefits in personalizing the story for your child in answering if you knew anyone who died that day. Children are inherently curious and knowing their caregiver’s story can help them with their emotional understanding. As far as whether or not it could happen again, it’s important to focus on the fact that while it could happen again, there are many people dedicated to ensuring our safety and security to protect us from attacks like these happening again.


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