Talking to Your Children About 9/11
Helping them understand terrorism and disaster
An interview with Dr. Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Senior Psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado
How should parents expect children to react to the media coverage about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11?
Kids process information in a different way from the way we, as adults, process information. They probably don’t absorb much of it unless their parents are focusing on media.
How do parents explain 9/11 to children who don’t know about it?
Handle the questions as they come up, don’t over-talk it, don’t over-expose it, but don’t ban the media either. It’s wisest to recognize a few things. First, kids probably haven’t heard very much about 9/11 for a very long time, if at all, so this is going to be a new idea. Fifteen-year-olds only know about this from when they were five. Recognize, too, that kids have an immature view of death. Kids usually don’t understand death until 8-years-old. The other thing to understand is about people’s unusual reactions. Sometimes when people are anxious they laugh. Sometimes when people are sad, they don’t act sad.
What if your child does not willingly come to you and ask you questions?
Should parents use this as an opportunity to talk to their children about the news?
It’s okay for parents to ask, “Did you hear anything about what happened on 9/11?” If the child replies yes, the parent can continue with, “What did you hear?”
How do parents describe terrorism to a child?
We should talk about it in human terms. Parents can talk about how some individuals are opposed to everything we believe in and stand for in our country. So they want to destroy us, along with our beliefs and our way of life. That’s a terrorist. We have a few times (but not many) that we know of where terrorists did something terrible in our country. We are now being very watchful and mindful to keep everyone safe.
What kind of language can parents use to talk about good and evil?
Let’s try to understand act versus person. There’s a difference between a person and a person’s act and we believe most people – with the exception of just a few – are very good people. Sometimes very good people do very bad things. Very good children do bad things. And sometimes very bad people do good things.
How should parents explain why we observe a national anniversary that was also a tragedy?
Many, many people in this country were and are saddened by what happened ten years ago. This is a time for us to think about and reflect on what such a tragedy means. It’s also a time to remember the lost lives and those people who have to go on after losing them.
What behavior should parents look for in their kids to make sure they’re not taking on stress about this news?
A lot of kids are internalizers and they’re not going to tell you a whole lot. But they’ll act it out and play it out. Modeling with crashing toys or play buildings is not good. Reenacting this with big distortions would be a problem. Children may also draw pictures about this. In these situations, it’s important for parents to ask what is going on. What is happening in their child’s head? Parents can say, “Why are you playing ‘crash the towers’? You seem to be thinking about something, so tell us what you’re thinking about.”
Read more tips from Dr. Dolgan related to talking to your kids about a tragic event.