The 9/11 Attacks: The Do's and Don'ts of Talking to Children about that Tragic Day
Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman
This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The long awaited memorial at "ground zero" in New York City is being unveiled amid sighs of relief for some and controversy for others. As the media coverage refocuses our thoughts on the events of that dreadful day strong emotions could arise and many will be reminded of similar feelings they had ten years ago.
The tragic loss for many families coupled with the intense emotion felt by people across the country makes talking about 9/11 difficult. Parents are faced with the task of conveying the events of 9/11 while at the same time managing their own feelings. Many parents want to talk to their children about what happened that day, but are not sure what to say or even where to begin.
Following are some do's and don'ts that we offer as a guide for those who want to talk with their children about this tragic historical event that has altered the course of our country forever.
Do your research. Prior to talking to your children, get clear about the facts. Make sure you are providing accurate information about the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. Much has been said about this important time in our history by friends, neighbors, celebrities and politicians that is steeped in emotion and opinion. Avoid the perpetuation of myths and opinions. Stay accurate in your presentation of the 9/11 history. For information about the 9/11 attacks and the 911 Memorial visitwww.911memorial.org.
Do respect emotions. Your children will have a variety of different emotions depending on there are age, interest level and family ties. Some children were not born when the attacks occurred and may have little or no emotional connection to the events. Others will have lost a parent, family member or friend. There is no statute of limitations on grieving. Being sad and crying ten years later is permissible. So is showing little interest or emotion. Allow your child to express whatever emotion he or she is feeling.
Don't force a discussion. If your child shows little or no interest in a 9/11 discussion, let it go for now. Wait for a time that is better for him. Your children will let you know when they are ready to discuss a topic. They will do that by showing a slight interest and by asking preliminary questions. Use those signals as a sign that the time could be ripe for engaging in a discussion on this important historical event.
Do as much listening as you do talking. Ask your child what she knows about the 9/11 attacks and the memorial. Her current knowledge on the topic will act as a guide for you as to what information or emotional support to provide next. Ask your child what she would like to know and search for the answers together. Take a virtual tour on the 911 memorial website (cited above) and perhaps even plan a visit to the memorial or the museum when it opens next year.
Don't equate the terrorist attacks with the Muslim community. The terrorists were extremists and had very little, if anything at all, to do with Muslim families around the world and the ideals by which they live. Our country has a rich heritage that is built around the contributions of many cultures and many religions. Having an attitude of tolerance and acceptance is an important strength and defining value of our nation. We are all more alike than different. A 9/11 remembrance is an important time to teach children tolerance and how to identify prejudice when it surfaces.
Do reassure safety. The world we live in is filled with an abundance of safety, peace and serenity. It is a safe world full of people that are kind and gentle. Yes, there are some extremists who plot to do us harm. Do not dwell on the negative few. Point instead to all the safeguards that keep our children unharmed and reassure them of the safety in their immediate surroundings. Identify the people who help keep them safe as well as some rules and regulations that have been established to do the same.
Do focus on the helpers. Helpers always come. Focus on them. On that horrible day ten years ago, firefighters, emergency rescue crews, police officers and people off the street entered the buildings in an attempt to help others. Some of those helpers gave their lives in that effort. Many first responders are still experiencing health problems, including cancer, as a result of their involvement. They are and always will be HEROES. Whenever they are in need, encourage your children to look for the helpers. Again, helpers always come.
Do limit TV and internet exposure. The amount of media time devoted to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath is likely to increase over the next few days. Guard your children from overexposure by limiting their access. View programs together and discuss what you are watching. Visit websites with your children if they are interested in additional information. Talk, share, evaluate, debrief the content and set limits on the exposure time as well as type of content viewed. Turn off the TV. Shut down the computer. Enough is enough. You will know when that is for your children.
Do affirm life. In every tragedy there are signs of growth. Show your children evidence of the resiliency of the human spirit and how life itself finds a way to grow and learn, even in the face of the most tragic of events. As a living reminder of this, the 9/11 Memorial has over four hundred trees planted throughout the site. Life survives. New growth is present. Focus on life and growth with your children. Keep learning, growing and moving forward as a family.
The depth of the pain and heartache of the 9/11 tragedy is not measurable. Yet, the horrific event can serve as a useful purpose if we use it to help our children learn about feelings, look for the helpers, develop tolerance and appreciate the connectedness of all human beings. As we remember the over two thousand individuals who lost their lives that day, let us move forward with peace and acceptance in our hearts.
Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman are the authors of Parent Talk Essentials: How to Talk to Kids about Divorce, Sex, Money, School, and Being Responsible in Today’s World. Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman are two of the world’s foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. For more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their websites today.www.thomashaller.com or www.chickmoorman.com