How to talk to your children about 9/11: Be honest and reassuring

Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 6:57 p.m. CDT; updated 3:59 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 14, 2012

COLUMBIA — On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, many news sources will be showing pictures, re-airing footage and recounting the testimonies of survivors, witnesses and volunteers. For adults, this will be a day of remembrance.

But it will also be the first time many children will be hearing and seeing the events in detail.


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The Missourian asked two people who work in or write about child development and two Columbia parents to share their advice on how to introduce this topic to young children. Here's who we talked to:

Jessie Bradley, director of MU's Child Development Lab, has been working with children for more than 30 years. Her experience includes child development in refugee camps helping young children express and sort through emotional trauma.

Amanda Rock, a columnist and blogger who writes’s guide to preschoolers. She shared her expertise in an online column and expanded on them in a phone interview.

Norbert Richardson, MU assistant professor of clinical surgery, has five children who were ages 4, 6, 8, 9 and 21 during the tragedy, and he remembers the family going through the grief together.

Jim Flink, vice president of news operations at Newsy, has two children who are now ages 7 and 10. He is dealing with teaching his kids about 9/11 after all these years. He said, “It’s pretty tough stuff to lay on kids — but important nonetheless.”

Here is the advice they offered:

1. Be there when they’re watching.

According to Bradley, one of the most important things a parent can do is simply be there if and when their children are watching the news. By simply supervising, parents can gauge reaction, answer questions and facilitate conversation. She also said to encourage questions, clarify misunderstandings and, most importantly, reassure them.

“Kids look to their parents to keep them safe,” Bradley said. “At a young age, they may have a hard time understanding that the pictures and footage have already happened. By being there, you can assure them that they are safe now. It’s all about reassurance.”

Flink said in an email that although his children have seen some coverage, at 7 and 10, they are still very young to be seeing everything. He does feel it’s necessary to limit some of the exposure they get. Something he thinks is important, though, is for his children to hear about his personal experience. “I explained where I was when it happened and what I felt — first fear, then depression, then a determination to regain perspective. And I explained what I learned — that evil exists in the minds of people who begin with small fringe beliefs and become obsessed by them.”

Richardson said he didn’t get to talk to his children until after they had already been exposed to 9/11 at school. “When they came home we watched more footage together as a family. It was important to be there with them even though they were already aware of the situation.”

2. Facts are good, but keep it general

If your child has questions about the footage they are seeing, have the facts so you’re able to answer honestly. However, depending on the age, parents should be careful about what details they include. Bradley advised staying general and keeping the scope as global as possible.

“Don’t disguise it — people died and it was traumatic, but by keeping it general, you avoid causing further confusion or emotional harm,” she said.

Flink wants to answer his children's questions honestly and give them valid information without scaring them. Here are some things he told his children: "Extremists go to great lengths to instill fear, hatred, doubt and confusion  on the larger society. Extremism/terrorism comes in many forms — including violence and violent rhetoric, misinformation, propaganda and bullying behavior.

“The extremist's goal is to reinforce deep-held beliefs (about faith, or nation, or culture), to undermine society, to prove a point, to lash out or to ‘right a perceived wrong.’  Rarely do extremists/terrorists see their activity as anything but justified.”

Richardson said the facts were important and the main question his children were asking was, “How could someone do this to other people?” Richardson and his wife told the children, “The attack was by radical Muslims, but there are millions and millions of Muslims who aren’t bad. There is just a small faction who misunderstood — doing bad things thinking they are doing the right things. They were raised to believe their God wanted that from them, so the blame isn’t necessarily all theirs."

3. Consider your child’s perspective.

Rock suggests keeping it as simple as possible and never forgetting your child’s point of view. She said young children tie everything into how it relates to them. According to her, young children pick up on anger and fear and might become alarmed if their parents become too emotional. The risk is that children will pick up on feelings of sadness and anger and apply it to themselves.

Richardson was in the military, and he said his children were even more distressed than most, thinking that at any moment their father could be deployed. He told his kids, “Everything is going to be OK. You can see it on the TV, but it really is far away.” He knew that there was a possibility that he could be called away, though, so reassurance for his children was most important to him as a father.

4. Look for signs of distress.

Depending on the child’s personality, distress can be shown in a variety of ways — some more obvious that others. Younger children can express anxiety through tantrums, while older children sometimes obsess over details. Bradley suggests keeping an eye on your children's reactions and not being afraid to discuss their feelings.

“If they are getting upset, talk it out or simply limit the viewings — that’s why it’s important to be there and monitor what they’re watching,” she said. “Ask them what they’re thinking. Don’t be afraid of the conversation.”

Richardson said that going through 9/11 together meant he and his family were all distressed at the same time. “Everyone felt this overwhelming sadness, angered because someone had attacked our country. We just tried to experience everything together.”

5. Use it as a learning opportunity.

Bradley said the news coverage could be used as an educational opportunity for social issues, anger management and safety. Bring up the brave men and women who helped after and the patriotism the tragedy fostered. While this may seem like a lot for a young child to handle, Bradley said if you keep your wording general, you can facilitate a conversation with your child that helps them sort through the events while also providing good lessons in how to treat others.

“Instead of saying, ‘There are al-Qaida terrorists who flew two planes into the Twin Towers and killed a bunch of people and all that, by simply saying ‘There were bad people who were angry and wanted to hurt Americans,’ you as a parent are able to talk about good ways to handle anger," she said. "Steer your answers into a discussion about accepting peoples' differences. If they’re scared, make a family emergency safety plan. This doesn’t have to be tragic. You can turn it into something positive.”

Flink also said he taught his children more about the roles of these "bad people," so his kids were learning more than just that 9/11 happened, but also why. He said, “Extremists represent all races, ethnicities and nations. All nations have extremists — as do all faiths. Extremism/terrorism can be accepted/adopted in a larger society — and carried out by governments and nations.”

The Richardsons did try to teach their children about different religions and about acceptance in the face of the tragedy. Richardson said that they were travelers, and in light of 9/11, they taught their kids, “be careful what you say to people — don’t act like an 'American' but blend in and don’t make a statement.”

6. Encourage your children to come to you and reassure their fears.

Rock said one of the most important things a parent can do during this emotional discussion is to make sure the child knows he or she can come to you with questions and to continue the discussion if they have concerns or additional questions. She said that children want to know they, and their family, will be unharmed, and reassuring that fear is among the most important things to keep in mind.

“Say something like, ‘Sometimes bad things happen to good people, but not all the time and not to you. I will always do my best to keep you safe,’ ” she said. “No matter what your children may ask that day, it’s important to listen and reassure them that no matter what, as a parent, you will keep them safe.”

Richardson said that he and his wife encouraged the children to talk to them, “We told them it was OK to be afraid and sad for what had happened, and certainly they can talk to us, and they did, at least for a few days. Kids are resilient, and soon they were back into their own lives.”

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