How to Talk to Your Kids About 9/11 & Other Traumatic Events

The Stir Exclusive 25

911 tribute in lightToday is the 12th anniversary of 9/11. The memories of that day felt fresh last December after the Newtown shootings, and again this spring after the Boston Marathon bombing. If there is a constant in this life, it's that terrorism and large-scale tragedy will happen again and again. For us parents, this poses a special challenge: How do we shepherd our children through these traumatic events?

We spoke with Dr. Carole Lieberman, mom, psychiatrist, and author of Coping With Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted, to get some insight. What are the parenting lessons we learned from dealing with the aftermath of 9/11? How can we use what we learned to help our children deal with whatever new challenges will come?

The Stir: How did we see kids responding to 9/11? 
Dr. Lieberman:
After 9/11, children were traumatized -- whether they lived in New York City (or Washington, D.C., or Pennsylvania) or simply watched the news on TV. One of the reasons it was so hard for children to comprehend what had happened was that it seemed like they were watching a movie. We never wanted to believe that someone could actually wage war on our soil, so it seemed all the more unreal. Some of the symptoms of stress included anxiety, depression, nightmares, regression to behavior of younger ages (such as bedwetting), separation anxiety, physical ailments (such as stomachaches), and so on. Of course, it was even worse for those children who lost family members or friends' parents or others on 9/11. There are still scars left on those of us who were kids on 9/11 and those who were adults. Most of us are in denial about the ongoing impact of 9/11 and of the current daily headlines about terrorism.  

The Stir: How did parents typically respond? What worked? What didn’t work?
Dr. Lieberman:
 Many parents, dazed and terrified themselves, simply hugged their children and told them there was nothing to worry about. But children could see and sense how their parents were feeling. Their parents seemed sad and scared, not okay at all. So then, not only were kids upset by the news, but they were upset by their parents lying to them about what was going on and felt they couldn't trust them to tell them the true story.

What worked better was allowing children to ask questions and answering them as calmly as possible, only sugar-coating it in age-appropriate ways. There are many other things that parents could do to help their children process tragedies like 9/11, such as limiting exposure to the news, encouraging them to draw how they're feeling and write stories about it, spending more time with children doing calming activities such as listening to classical music, going as a family to religious services, and adopting a pet.

The StirCould you go a little more into what we should tell kids when we talk with them about 9/11? What do we tell 5-year-olds versus what we tell 11-year-olds? How do we describe the event?
Dr. Lieberman: 
For younger children, parents can describe terrorists as being like bullies on the playground, and 9/11 as being their attempt to bully us. Parents can further explain that terrorists, like bullies, are really cowards who are angry at themselves and take out their anger on people they hurt. For older kids, parents can explain in a little more detail what happened. But, regardless of the child's age, parents should try to answer their questions and not provide more information than the child wants or needs to hear.

More from The Stir: Remembering 9/11: 8 Powerful Quotes for the 12th Anniversary

The StirAre there any key words we should definitely use -- or words we should avoid?
Dr. Lieberman:
We should reassure children that we love them and that we, our president, and many others are doing a lot of things to keep them safe. We shouldn't describe terrorists in language that makes them seem larger than life lurking on every street corner, or like monsters in scary movies.

The Stir: What do we say when kids ask us if it could happen again?
Dr. Lieberman:
We need to acknowledge that it could happen again because it did in a smaller sense at the Boston Marathon. We can tell them that terrorists would like to attack us again, but that many people are working to make sure that it doesn't happen -- like policemen. And we can say that there have been attempts that have been stopped. So, what we're doing is working.  

The Stir: Are there any other common questions kids ask?
Dr. Lieberman:
Kids often ask if Mommy or Daddy will come to school to pick them up if an attack happens again. We should reassure them that we will.

The Stir: When something like the Newtown shooting or the gas attacks in Syria happen, should we wait for our kids to bring it up, or should we initiate that conversation? Does it depend on their age?
Dr. Lieberman:
For children who are below school age, there is less chance that they will hear about tragic events, unless they watch the news or overhear adults talking. If we don't believe they've been exposed to this news, we can wait until they ask questions. But children who are of school age most likely have heard something about the news and it is better to bring it up and ask what they think happened, so that we can correct any misinformation.

The Stir: How can parents take what we learned from 9/11 to prepare themselves for the next big trauma? (Which, given the world we live in, we know is coming sooner or later.)
Dr. Lieberman:
Parents need to realize that we should prepare the same way runners prepare for marathons. Since terrorism will not disappear in our lifetime, we need to prepare physically and psychologically to withstand future attacks and other traumas. This includes incorporating such things as vitamins, sufficient sleep, exercise, and stress-relievers into our daily life. This goes for children as well. 

Carole Lieberman, M.D. is a psychiatrist, commentator, and bestselling author. 

Have you thought about preparing yourself and your family for future traumatic events?

 

Image via Jackie/Flickr

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Catherine Harris Brown

Not to be a B, but its the 12th anniversary of 9/11. 12 years is actually more than a decade (as is 11 year BTW).

Sondra Best

Make terrorists out like bullies on the playground? Yeah because bullies want to murder everyone in our entire country. That is probably the worst advice I have ever heard.


Tell your kids the truth; don't lie to them and don't sugar coat it. Your kids aren't so delicate that they'll lose their minds from hearing the truth. Let them know that there are people who want to kill us, that it can happen at any time, that soldiers (NOT the president, are you kidding me?) are protecting us along with police, firefighters, and others. Tell it in an age appropriate way, but make it honest. Chances are that by the time your kids start asking about 9/11, they'll be old enough to have it explained to them.

Lance... LancesMom

We live out in the country way away from large cities. Our major concern is we fall in the 50 mile fallout radius of a nuclear plant. So I guess no matter where you live, danger is around us. You can only hope for the best.


My son is well aware and has been even more aware lately now that he heads to boot camp in December.

bamab... bamababe1975

We're just open and honest with them, explaining that bad things happen but many people work very hard every day to try and prevent them, and those we can't prevent, we work together on to fix the damage after the fact. They're 12 and 13 now so they get it.

dusky... dusky_rose

I think talk to them on a level that they would understand.

matt_... matt_sara_mom

I will be open and honest and answer questions as simply as possible for their age, that Bad things do happen but people are there to help protect us from the bad things. 

elasmimi elasmimi

I disagree with comparing terrosists to playground bullies. Kids are scared enough of bullies w/o thinking they would have the power to kill thousands. And I think it should be totally age related off course. My 7 y/o is very sensitive, and is already in counseling due to abandonment issues. I will sugar coat as needed.

la_be... la_bella_vita

We were open and honest. My 3 year old saw the twin towers fall today because I left the news on. I explained to him what happened and he said "Ok mommy"

Molly... MollySkyar

I think Dr. Susan Rutherford, a Clinical Psychologist said it best when we were asked about talking with kids about the tragedy in Newtown (http://www.ConversationsWithMyMother.com/helping-children-cope-with-a-tragedy-like-newtown/ ) They key is to overcome the level of fear and reassure them that they will be safe. Depending on the level of information they've absorbed from the media or other's opinions, "if they ask, you have to tell them but you also don't want them to become immobilized by fear." I should also add that it's been 12 years since this tragedy, and most kids at this time either do not remember what happened, or hadn't been born at the time of the events.

Miche... MichelleK41

Great article, thanks so much for sharing this.

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