“Mommy, What is 9/11?”
As the ten year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the media is heating up with programs and references to that tragedy. Ten years ago already. Wow! As was the case when Kennedy was shot, many can easily answer the question, “What were you doing when you heard the news of 9/11?” That’s how big it was in our lives. To children fifteen years and younger, 9/11 is another event in American history to be learned. But learning about it from history books is quite a different story from seeing graphic footage in your living room, footage that looks like your own city streets.
As the anniversary approaches, not only will the event be replayed on screens of all kinds, but it is likely to be discussed in classrooms and even on playgrounds. And the topic might come up around your dinner table. How will you answer your child’s questions: What really happened on 9/11? Who were those guys? Why did they do it? Is it going to happen again? Is our plane going to crash ? Throughout history there have been wars and assassinations and natural disasters, too many to count, but 9/11 was different. It was a first for America, and it was terrifying.
A child’s ability to process 9/11 will depend upon his age, development, temperament, and experience. In addition, young children easily confuse the facts with their own fears, and they lack perspective. Did it happen last week? Across town? Will it happen to us?
It is almost impossible to completely shelter very young children from the news. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And when you have children of different ages, monitoring your child’s news intake is compounded by what your older children have heard and learned in their less sheltered lives away from home and wandering the world through media. It is a good idea to have at the ready your explanations, just in case…
Finding the words to use with children, words that explain but do not terrify and cause additional fear, is tricky business. Below are some tips and scripts that may come in handy, as 9/11/11 approaches.
- Mind your affect. Children absorb your affect, that is, your tone, as well as your feelings. When you speak with your child about terrifying issues, it is crucial that your affect is calm and confident, but not dismissive.
- Don’t avoid questions. Not answering questions, avoiding the discussion, is just as damaging as answering without consideration. And it can leave the child with the message that the topic is taboo. Children should be able to come to parents with all their questions.
- Find out what the child knows. Then you can continue the discussion based on what he knows and what you think he is really asking (the question beneath the question, what is really brewing).
- Don’t downplay your child’s feelings. Not only does saying “Don’t worry” not work, but it disreguards your child’s real feelings. Acknowledge his feelings and give honest but reassuring answers.
- Be brief and use simple language that your child can understand. A four year old and a twelve year old require different explanations.
- Be honest and give accurate information…but only as needed and only the bare essentials.
- Beware of What if questions. Your child is usually looking for reassurance that he will be safe no matter what. Don’t bite!
- What happened on 9/11? “Some terrorists flew an airplane into two buildings, and the buildings collapsed.” When you child asks if people died, “Yes, many people who were on the plane and in the building died.”
- What is a terrorist? “A terrorist is someone who tries to scare or frighten and sometimes hurt other people. Terror is another word for frighten. Most people are good. There are not many terrorists.”
- Why did they do that? “That was a horrible thing that they did. There are some people who are really angry, and they let their feelings out in very bad ways.”
These are simple explanations and are meant as starting points for your conversations with your children. Younger children can talk about how we solve disagreements and problems, how we express our feelings in non violent ways. Older children can talk about the reasons for the terrorists’ anger at America.
In all your discussions, remember every child’s basic need to feel safe. They need to be reassured of all the ways we are safe in America and all the people whose job it is to keep it so.
Please refer to chapter 11, Is the Fire Going to Come to Our House? in my book, Just Tell Me What to Say, for a deeper discussion on the topic.