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Honestly, I'm Not Sure How To Talk To My Kids About 9/11

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

As a young mom, the arrival of another anniversary of 9/11 doesn’t just mean I'll be thinking about my own memories of the event the weeks afterward. I am also thinking about when, if, and how I'll explain the tragedy of 9/11 to my children. And I know I am not alone in thinking this. For those of us with children who weren’t alive at the time or who were too young to remember what happened, we have the unique and difficult responsibility of educating our children about what happened and how it changed our nation.

It isn’t a simple topic to approach. I want for my children, when they are old enough, to understand the loss our nation experienced, how that changed each and every one of us living in both the United States and abroad, and I want my kids to appreciate the sacrifices that we made as a country in the wake of the attack. Even though I want my children to understand these things, at the same time, I don’t want my children to experience the fear I felt or to feel they are not safe when they leave the house. In many ways, I don't know how to talk to my kids about 9/11. I'm not sure where to begin.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

I was 12 years old on September 11, 2001. At the time, my mom was teaching me and my siblings at home. So, when my mom’s best friend called and told her to turn on the TV, we were all there to see the coverage. I think the shock of the event and the trauma of watching your country under attack kept a lot of parents from thinking about how their children would react right then in the moment. I don’t really remember how much we watched or if my mom ever turned off the TV that day. In my memory, it seems like we watched hours and hours of coverage. Time stood still. The only thing moving on the TV were the horrific images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City and the aftermath of the wreckage of a third plane crash in Pennsylvania.  

I replayed footage of smoking buildings in my head, I dreamt of planes crashing into my home, or I didn’t sleep at all. On the worst nights, my mom sat on my bed until I fell asleep, my entire body trembling uncontrollably in fear. That is how I remember 9/11.

Like many Americans, I went to bed terrified. Since I was young, I had trouble processing the events and as a result, I had nightmares. I replayed footage of smoking buildings in my head, I dreamt of planes crashing into my home, or I didn’t sleep at all. On the worst nights, my mom sat on my bed until I fell asleep, my entire body trembling uncontrollably in fear. That is how I remember 9/11. Recently, I read about vicarious traumatization, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my exposure to the media was too much for me at that age and that vicarious traumatization was to blame for my sleepless nights for the weeks that followed.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer
Most difficult, perhaps, is the question of how I balance raising informed and compassionate children while also protecting them from the most difficult details of the attack until they have the emotional maturity to process them. Honestly, I keep asking these questions and I keep coming back to the same answer: I’d rather not talk about it at all.

Now, I can’t help but think about the amount of fear I felt when I think about my three children learning about 9/11, or any other traumatizing event that has taken place in our country in the years that have past since then. When I think of the horror that has enveloped our world over the years, it's left me with a decision to make: How long do I protect my children from the disturbing nature of 9/11? How long do I keep from them the number of people who died? How long do I protect them from the reality of the war that followed, and the number of people who lost their lives in that war? When a new tragedy occurs, like a school shooting, should I avoid media consumption altogether to protect my kids from fearing for their own safety while in school?

Most difficult, perhaps, is the question of how I balance raising informed and compassionate children while also protecting them from the most difficult details of the attack until they have the emotional maturity to process them. Honestly, I keep asking these questions and I keep coming back to the same answer: I’d rather not talk about it at all. I’d rather put this topic on the back burner and avoid reliving any of the trauma or risking making my young kids fear for the safety. I know better, like any other difficult topic, and I know it's my job to start talking to my kids early before they start relying on their friends or the internet for information, but I'm not sure where to start or what to tell them.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

When it comes to explaining the media to our kids, it can be really hard to know where to start. Following the advice of Common Sense Media, I've decided to take the approach of letting my kids lead the conversation. This includes asking them what they know and what they want to know about what happened.

Additionally, I'm trying to watch how I react and consume media about the anniversary, knowing if I over-consume media coverage I'm personally much more likely to respond with anxiety, and I want to avoid modeling that in front of my children.

Lastly, I think more than anything it's important that my children know that they are safe and that their dad and I work hard to do everything in our power to keep them safe. As they grow older, this may mean offering more information about what our country does to keep them safe, but for now, my preschooler doesn’t need details, she just needs to know that mommy and daddy prioritize her safety and well-being above all else. It's the 15 anniversary of 9/1 this year, but right now, I'm glad my kids are young, that I only really have to give a few details to my oldest if she asks, and that my other two can wait for a few more years. The horror of that day has changed the lives of so many thousands of people. I want to preserve their innocence for just a bit longer. We'll talk about it when the time is right, when my kids are ready, emotionally and mentally. And if questions come up in the meantime based off things they see and hear, I feel better knowing I'm going to let them take the lead.