Following the news of Bin Laden’s death, I received a rash of calls from parents wondering how to explain 9/11 to their elementary school age children. Most of these children were a mere twinkle in their parents’ eyes on September 11, 2001. Referencing that horrible event was part of many parents’ and teachers’ explanations of the reason for needing to rid the world of Osama Bin Laden. Little did they realize how difficult – indescribable, scary, anxiety provoking,—the explanation would be.
When you explain an act of terrorism, the child’s ability to understand and process what went on or is going on depends upon his age, development, temperament, and experience. His understanding is not in an adult context, one that allows him to know that people recover, eventually things will be okay, and life goes on. In addition, the child easily confuses his own fears with the facts.
Children are egocentric and concrete thinkers. They understand everyday life as it affects them, and that is their major concern: Am I okay? Are the people I care about okay? Is this going to happen again…to me?
Most experts agree that children under the age of seven do not need to know about 9/11, let alone the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Here are some tips for explaining 9/11 to your older children.
- After he has come to you with his question, find out what your child has already heard. What have you heard about 9/11? Hopefully, since you calmly welcomed his question, your child will say what’s on his mind. Then you will follow his lead and continue the discussion based on what he knows, what he asks, and what you think he’s really asking. But remember, most parents tend to talk too much and give too much information.
- Shape your answers to each individual child. Older children will likely want and be able to handle more details. You know your child and how much he can handle. Invite your older child to protect the younger or more sensitive child from sharing information that only he can handle. It is surprising how he will oblige.
- Be brief and try to use simple language and concepts that your child can understand.
- Listen for the question beneath the words. The child may subtly be letting you know that he is worried. You may want to ask what you think he is really saying. Are you concerned that this is going to happen again?
- Be honest and give accurate information…but only as needed and only the bare essentials, a bit at a time. In response to your child saying I heard some guys flew planes into a building and a lot of people died., you might say, Yes, that is what happened almost 10 years ago.
- Be prepared to answer each question only as it comes up. And be prepared for several conversations. Children often ask the same question over and over again. That repetition can be the child’s attempt to wrap his arms around your answer, or it may represent a need for reassurance. As he processes the information he has learned or hears additional information on the playground, he will have new thoughts and questions.
- Why? While often the question Why? is the young child’s way of telling you he doesn’t like what he has heard, it is a real question from the older child who will likely need more information. But for this older child, you might start by asking him why he thinks it happened. Likely this will lead a discussion of terrorism.
- What is a terrorist? A terrorist is someone who tries to scare or sometimes hurt other people. Terror is another word for frighten. Most people in the world are good; there are not many terrorists.
- Why did they do that? The men who flew the plane into the buildings were terrorists. Those terrorists were really angry about something, and they expressed their feelings in really horrible ways. More… The people who flew the planes into the building did not like America, and they wanted to cause terrible damage. Most people do not feel this way about America. While you may not believe this to be true, you child needs to hear it in order to feel safe.
- Going into detail about Al Qaeda (and others) is not a good idea. Your child has a basic need to feel safe and to feel that he and you, as Americans, are not danger. This event should be presented as the great exception.
- Take time to point out all the ways in which we are safe. Children need to be reminded that there are a multitude of precautions that all people take every day in order to be safe—from wearing seat belts and washing hands to airport security checks. We live in a country whose priority is for all its citizens to be safe.
For more information on this topic, visit Chapter 11, “Is the Fire Going to Come to Our House,” in my book Just Tell Me What to Say.