By: Nicole Pelletiere
Tomorrow marks the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Each year, the American media covers a memorial and often shows clips of the tragedy. Whether it be televised, in print, or on the internet, your child may be exposed to the coverage. Depending on their age, he or she may have different reactions regarding the event. Some children may not be in-tuned with the attacks at all, but one thing’s for sure, they may have lots of questions for Mom and Dad.
The following tips have been prepared by 911Memorial.org to provide broad guidelines to help you in these potential conversations…
Don’t avoid difficult conversations.
Parents and caregivers understandably don’t want to cause anxiety and distress in their children. This often results in shying away from difficult conversations that we presume will provoke these emotions. It is the attacks themselves, though, that are upsetting, not the conversations about them. Invite the conversation with open-ended questions such as: “What would you like to know about 9/11?” or “Why do you think we are remembering the anniversary of 9/11?” Let the child’s interests and thoughts guide the conversation. Use age-appropriate language and be aware of your tone, reassuring children about their own safety and allowing them to express concerns about 9/11 and its aftermath in more depth. Answer questions about the attacks with facts. As the years have passed since 9/11, our collective memory has slowly hardened into history. This passage of time means that your children might have no direct memory of the attacks of 9/11. Their understanding comes from the myriad sources around them — their families, schools, friends, and media — and as is often the case with so many voices, these sources can sometimes contradict each other. It is important, then, to answer children’s questions about what happened with basic facts and point them to reliable sources of information for further research. Be prepared for your child to ask questions about death when discussing 9/11, and to answer these questions in a way that is honest and developmentally-appropriate. To access the New York Life’s useful Grief Guide, visit: www.newyorklife.com/foundation and click “Bereavement Resources.”
Monitor the TV and internet.
Around the anniversary of 9/11, it is likely that television programs and news shows will discuss the attacks and their aftermath in some depth. Programs may include footage from 9/11 itself, and include scenes that are not appropriate for children to view at all or without supervision. Similarly, children may use the internet to seek out answers to their questions. Be actively involved in the quality and amount of information they receive.
Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers.
It’s all right not to know the answer to every question. 9/11 is an incredibly complex subject, with repercussions that are still evolving today. If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest. Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and explore the question together.
It can be easy to make generalizations when discussing 9/11. As with many tragedies, some have a tendency to talk in broad strokes; for example, comparing the suffering of one person to another or assigning blame to an entire group. The story of 9/11 is actually thousands of individual stories. Highlight those specific stories to help humanize the events, and avoid stereotypes and simplifications.
Children’s responses to the anniversary of 9/11 will vary widely depending on their age, personality, actual or perceived ethnic or religious background, connection to the attacks, and exposure to other past traumatic experiences. As the anniversary approaches, look for changes in mood, behavior, and daily habits, and remember that children who have experienced trauma, even if unrelated to 9/11, are at a higher risk of experiencing distress. Unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and bullying, are unhealthy, no matter the circumstances, and warrant professional attention.
You aren’t immune to the emotions sparked by 9/11. Acknowledge and attend to your own reactions and feelings, your memories and connections. 9/11 is not an easy topic to think about, let alone discuss with a child. Recognizing your feelings beforehand and then sharing them honestly with your children offers them a model in their own difficult conversations and will help engender a safe, trusting environment. Seek assistance if the anniversary of 9/11 evokes feelings in you that are overwhelming or difficult to manage.
The attacks of 9/11 showed us the worst in people. But it was also a time when many wonderful, compassionate, and heroic deeds occurred. “Heroes” were everywhere on 9/11 and in the days afterwards. The shock and the sadness also brought people — families, friends, and strangers alike — together in a way that felt special. It is important to remind your children that we are also remembering those heroes and those times. Help your children recognize how their own compassion can prevent future acts of intolerance and violence by reminding them to express their ideas respectfully and to treat people who are different from themselves with kindness.
Original content provided by: National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Photo courtesy of: U.S. Army Soldiers Media Center ‘Young Patriot with American Flag’