How to Talk with Kids About the 9/11 Attacks

With the 20th anniversary of the attack, here’s how to appropriately help a child with ‘big feelings.'

On Sept. 1, 2001, I wasn’t yet 1 when a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center left the country rattled. My mother says I was watching Clifford the Big Red Dog when my father called her from work and told her to switch to the news channel. The coverage played all day in our house.

I can’t remember when I first learned about the events, but I grew up with the normality of TSA lines before every vacation, of fourth grade bullies trying to remove a Brown classmate’s hijab, of the word “terrorist” floating into history classrooms as leaves turned brown outside the school window. 

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks, children may be more exposed to graphic imagery and information, whether at school or through heightened media coverage. In preparation for this, I talked with Nadia Spencer, a clinical supervisor at the Erikson Center for Children and Families, about how parents can prepare for conversations with their kids about the event.

Ask kids ‘what they know’

After realizing their child will learn about 9/11 at school, through news coverage or YouTube videos, Spencer says parents should try to understand their child’s schema of the event. After establishing their knowledge and thoughts about 9/11, parents can understand their fears or anxieties, their knowledge base and any misperceptions they may have.

“Ask them, ‘I heard you guys learned about 9/11 today. Do you have any questions?’ or ‘What did you learn?’ to get an idea of what they processed,” Spencer recommends.

Prepare for common fears

Discussions about and coverage of 9/11 can cause children to worry about a parent dying, bodily harm and separation anxiety, which may manifest itself into increased clinginess before school or bedtime, Spencer notes.

“For most children, the fear or anxiety would be more about not understanding what’s happening but feeling the intensity of the situation,” Spencer says. “The younger the child, the less they’re able to understand why they’re feeling anxious or why they’re feeling more intense emotions. When I talk about it with young kids, we talk about having a ‘big feeling.’”

Monitor your own emotions

“The parent’s job is to be what’s called a co-regulator for the child’s emotions, provide that sense of safety and help decrease those big feelings,” Spencer says. “Sometimes, that can be hard for parents if they are also anxious about it. It’s hard to regulate others when you are yourself dysregulated.”

Correct misconceptions

“Kids have a really good way of pulling in pieces of information that aren’t supposed to be connected and throwing them in the mix,” such as thinking 9/11 happened in Chicago, Spencer notes.

While not a misunderstanding, the worry of another terrorist attack is common, especially in children who are at least 12. To answer this fear, conveying safety is paramount, even if the parent shares this worry, according to Spencer.

Decide on what’s appropriate

While pre-teens and teenagers can maturely handle “adult conversations,” play trumps talk when it comes to ages 8 and younger, according to Spencer: “Children process the events in their life through play, not necessarily through verbal conversations. Fantasy is very useful to say things like, ‘If a bad guy were to come at the door here, you and I would turn into Wonder Woman and Captain America and we would protect everybody in the house.’ You can go into fantasy play to regulate those anxious emotions.”

Controlling the media a child consumes, such as intense images and video from 9/11, can help “a child who’s a little more intense or a little more anxious,” Spencer adds.

What’s the bottom line? “Help the child feel safe,” according to Spencer.

Looking for more ways to talk with kids about the 9/11 attacks? These children’s books about 9/11 provide kids more information about the tragic day.

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