Two decades have passed since the world-altering events of September 11th. For many, it’s an event that remains as vivid today as it was in 2001. And if you have young children, the question of when and how to talk to your kid about September 11th has probably entered your mind. When those conversations happen, they’ll likely run the gamut of emotions — sad and hopeful, illuminating and difficult.
When having a conversation about 9/11, perhaps think about using aids like books, or a trip to September 11th memorials. You can also consider comforting figures your children might know, like Mister Rogers; there are a number of helpful moments from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that offer advice to help kids understand and process sad or tragic events.
As for when you should talk to children about 9/11, well, the advice varies, but ultimately no one knows your kid better than you do, right? As you work through the decisions, consider this advice from psychotherapist Amy Morin, who is also a licensed clinical social worker: “It's important to give them the facts about it so they don't draw their own conclusions or believe any misinformation they might hear.”
Read on for more professional advice about handling the discussions with children of different ages.
When Should You Talk To Kids About 9/11?
As a caregiver, many people wonder what the “right” age is to discuss September 11th. “Unless it is on their mind, it is unlikely that a child in the preschool age range will initiate a conversation about the events of September 11th,” advises Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale’s School of Medicine.
According to Amy Morin, it may be a good idea to broach the subject once kids reach school age: “By then, they're likely to hear about it from their peers or they're likely to see coverage of it on TV.
As Dr. Teresa T. Hsu-Walklet is the assistant director of The Pediatric Behavioral Health Integration Program at Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, stresses that very young children won’t fully understand the concept of terrorism. While Hsu-Walklet wouldn’t recommend that discussion for those under 8, “…they may be exposed in some way to the incident — e.g., walking by the memorial in New York, an older sibling learning about it in school — and it’s OK to talk about the event, the emotional impact, as well as the support and positive connections that occurred afterwards in broad terms.”
How To Talk To Young Kids About 9/11
When you choose to broach the subject of September 11th with young kids, where do you even begin? “Start the discussion by first finding out what the child knows and work from there,” Hsu-Walklet says. Then try to assess with what facts, information and emotions they can adequately deal.
“Give kids as much information as they can handle for their maturity level,” Morin advises. “Young kids might simply need to know that a couple of people wanted to hurt others. And a lot of people worked together to help in the aftermath.”
Once you answer questions, consider dwelling on the hopeful. “One of the best things to do is to stay focused on all the people who helped one another after this. Talk about how kind and brave the workers who helped were and discuss any positive stories about people who pitched in to help one another or the victims and their families,” Morin says. “This can help kids know that while there are a few people out there who do bad things, there are a lot more good people out there who really want to help others.”
Just know that, while you’re navigating a conversation with children, you’ll also be having, and modulating, your own emotional response. “You will have to be prepared to feel uneasy as your child will likely raise emotionally laden questions, so be ready to share those feelings truthfully,” Dr. Hsu-Walklet says. “However, we know that greater parent distress can impact the child’s functioning, so instill hope and a sense of safety, too.”
Hsu-Walklet offers an example of how she might discuss: “This was a tragic day, but it also showed everyone how good people can be to one another. Firefighters, police, and strangers on the street helped each other afterwards. Some people are still working with those impacted by these attacks even today.”
Keep in mind, “Children are quite sensitive to their parents’ emotions even in good times. In worrisome events, they are especially sensitive,” says Pruett, a long-time member of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board. “If they overhear a conversation and want to know what’s up, keep it simple, to the level of their developmental understanding, and less is more. Be guided by their questions. If they ask you if you are upset or worried, be honest but brief. And then reassure them that you and they will be fine.” Emotions around a topic can be as pivotal as the words being said. “Feelings are important to figure out, and that talking helps,” Pruett says.
How To Talk To Older Kids About 9/11
As kids progress upward through elementary school, consider that the conversations will expand – and so might their concerns. “For elementary and middle school children, you might vary the language and content of the explanation of the attacks and subsequent events,” says Hsu-Walklet. “To elementary school children, this is history, and you might share specific information on the hijacking, explosions, and deaths. You might also talk about the racism and phobia that occurred after these events.”
If your middle schooler starts the conversation, Pruett says, “Before trying to answer the question, make sure you heard it correctly. Ask the child the question back with a ‘What do you think?’ tacked on the end. You’ll get a better idea of what they are worried about, and you can offer more specific reassurance.” If concerns swirl around personal safety, the safety of family members, or if there’s cause for fear, Pruett says, “You can offer reassurance that the police, our soldiers, and our government are doing everything they can to protect all of us.”
“You might extend this conversation into changes in our society that occurred because of these attacks — e.g., airport security,” Hsu-Walklet suggests.
Older kids may have questions about how to know if flying is safe or how to know if something like this could happen again. Should those worries arise, Morin says, “Provide reassurance and focus on the steps people take to keep us safe.”
When talking, be prepared to, well, be unprepared. You can’t ever anticipate absolutely every road the conversation will travel. “Middle school kids may have questions about religion and politics. Some questions may be tough to answer. It's OK to say you don't have all the answers,” Morin says.
What To Remember When Talking To Your Kid About 9/11
It’s a conversation, but perhaps the best way to begin is by asking and listening. “For all of these conversations, invite questions — it’s OK to admit you don't know something,” says Hsu-Walklet. “But be sure to stress the hope and coming together that followed as well, so that kids can grasp the importance of resiliency.”
Teresa T. Hsu-Walklet, assistant director, Pediatric Behavioral Health Integration Program (BHIP) at Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center
Amy Morin, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, author, and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind
Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine; member of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board