Expert Advice

How To Talk To Kids Today About 9/11, At Any Age

While our kids might feel far removed from the events of September 11, 2001, they’ll likely hear about it at school or on TV at some point. Here’s how to broach the conversation with them gently, according to psychiatrists.

Talking to kids today about 9/11, and terrorism in general, can be daunting — but it's an important ...
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Among the many tough topics parents have to discuss with their children these days, the September 11 attacks are uniquely challenging. It’s not easy to determine exactly when and how to broach the topic, especially if your kids are so young that they aren’t yet discussing it in school. Or if your kids are tweens or teens who feel so far removed from it that it seems to lack any real emotional resonance with them.

As the anniversary of the attacks draws closer, you might be wondering the best way to have an open dialogue with your kids without scaring or overwhelming them. Scary Mommy tapped two pros who explained how to have age-appropriate conversations today about such a horrific historical event that isn’t terribly far back in the rearview.

Where to Begin at Any Age

Whether your kids are at the stage where they hear about 9/11 at school and understand what they see on TV or online, or they’re not quite there yet, you’ll want to pay close attention to cues and signals they might be giving off, says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health: “When discussing a traumatic event with a child, it’s critical to listen to their concerns and pay attention to their body language. Whether they are hearing about it for the first time in school, a friend brought it up, or they saw frightening imagery on the news, it’s important to validate their emotions and listen to how it’s impacting them.”

A solid starting point is “checking in with your kids first and asking what they already know about 9/11 and if they have specific questions,” adds Dr. Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer at Real. “They may have some awareness from hearing about it at school or on social media and the news, depending on their age.”

When to Open Up Discussion

As with any difficult conversation, there’s no specific age or developmental stage to abide by, as both experts note. “Parents should approach the topic based on the emotional needs and understanding of each individual child,” says Patel-Dunn. “If your child is actively asking questions about 9/11, it’s a sign that it may be time to have a discussion. If the anniversary is weighing heavily on your mind and you think your child might be picking up on your emotions, it can also be a sign that having an open and honest conversation is appropriate.”

Vasan suggests trying to have a conversation about 9/11 before your child hears about it elsewhere, so you can “equip them with the facts,” adding, “For most children, early elementary school or even preschool is a time to check in with your child for the first time in an age-appropriate way.”

How to Have the Conversation

Not sure where to begin? “Checking in first about what they do and don’t know and what might be making them feel worried or anxious can give you a natural starting point and will help you engage in a helpful and appropriate conversation that addresses their concerns,” says Vasan.

She recommends starting with open-ended questions such as “What do you know about 9/11,” “What questions do you have,” and “How does this make you feel?”

Ultimately, Vasan advises parents to “remember that the goal is to center your child’s experience and make sure they have the information they need to feel safe,” adding that it’s “also a good opportunity to validate and normalize your child’s feelings. Let them know that you’re always there to talk if they have questions or feel concerned about 9/11 or anything else in life.”

What to Say and What Not to Say

Vasan recommends sticking strictly to the facts, especially with younger children, who might not yet be able to grasp the magnitude of such a life-altering event. “How much detail you share depends on the age and emotional needs of your child,” she says. “Watch your child’s physical cues to help you understand if they are feeling overwhelmed or are shutting down from the information.”

You might want to be prepared for unexpected questions, especially in curious younger kiddos. “A conversation about 9/11 will likely open up a broader conversation about death, especially with younger children,” says Vasan. “Before you start this conversation, be ready for questions that might come up about this.”

“Avoid oversharing on detailed information that they might not be ready for,” adds Patel-Dunn. “Understanding what your child already knows and what they have questions about can help you direct your conversation to what would be most helpful in addressing their concerns and challenging emotions.”

Even if you’ve had previous conversations, Vasan recommends checking in again if your child wants to process “new information or emotions” that might change with time as they understand more about the day.

“If they come home from school feeling upset by a conversation or presentation about 9/11, normalize and validate their emotions and use this as an opportunity to discuss coping techniques, including why sharing their feelings with safe adults, like you, is so important,” she adds.

“It’s key to reassure your child that they are safe throughout the conversation,” says Patel-Dunn. “You can remind them of this by talking about how much safer we are in airports now because of all the extra screening, and how brave all the helpers and first responders were that day.”

Two important things to avoid: politics and placing blame on anyone aside from the individual terrorists involved that day, especially given the ongoing Islamophobia and xenophobia that still exists to this day. “An important element of the events of 9/11 is related to terrorism,” says Vasan. “Be aware of the language you use and avoid making generalizations or assigning blame to an entire group of people.”

“Terrorism is an incredibly complicated topic, and it is important to treat it with nuance,” she adds. “It can be helpful to end any conversation grounding your child in hope and resilience. Maybe you can point to the incredible actions of first responders or talk about the way the community and country came together as examples.”

When Your Children Are Older

If your kids are in middle and/or high school (and likely learning about 9/11 in class), “it’s still important to check in with them about how they are feeling when coverage of it is on the news and discussions are happening in school,” says Patel-Dunn. You can use this opportunity to touch on the tougher aspects, such as terrorism in general and how it impacts our daily lives.

At any age or stage, your child might have questions you simply don’t have the answers to, such as why 9/11 happened and why terrorism still exists today. And that’s OK, say both experts. “It’s OK to not know the answer to every question that a child might have, especially when it comes to complex topics like terrorism,” says Patel-Dunn. “Be honest with them when you don’t know something, and use it as an opportunity to learn something new together, or have an open discussion about how it feels when we are scared or feel like we don’t have control of something.”

Other Helpful Tips to Guide Discussions

Both experts recommend limiting exposure to news and social media whenever possible, especially “graphic images of the Twin Towers falling,” suggests Vasan. “Avoid the impulse to have the news running 24/7 around the anniversary.”

If you do watch something disturbing by accident, “address it right away and try to limit that exposure moving forward,” suggests Patel-Dunn.

Don’t be afraid to check in with yourself as well, says Vasan. “Be aware of your own emotions and triggers when discussing this event. The default is often to make sure your child is doing OK. But before you can do that, you need to be aware of what might be coming up for you. If you find yourself feeling deeply, use this as an opportunity to share those feelings, appropriately, with your child as well as what you do to support yourself when you start feeling overwhelmed.”

Should you find that you’re having difficulty, or fear your child is experiencing heightened anxiety or worries, it never hurts to check in with a doctor and/or therapist, who can help assuage both you and your child’s fears and serve as external support in these tough conversations.

Both the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum offer age-appropriate lesson plans about 9/11 and terrorism. But ultimately, as Vasan points out, it’s “totally OK and expected not to have all the answers,” as some questions are truly unanswerable.