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How to Communicate With Children About September 11

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Children are still experiencing thoughts, triggered by controversy about where to and how to memorialize the deaths of thousands, as a result of the upcoming anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the crash of a fourth plane near Pittsburgh.  We all may be affected, but none more personally than our children. 

One seven year-old says, "I watch the plane hit the tower in my mind."  When the actual site was finally empty and cleared several months ago, a concerned nine year-old child asked, “What were they going to do with the property?" and was told by a teacher to forget about the past.”

Let me remind teachers and parents that as the ninth anniversary of the fateful day comes closer, children do not want to forget about it.  They still are at a stage literally when they believe that their parents and teachers literally are able to read their minds.  Their conclusion? All adults are just as afraid of the memories of 9-11 as they are! 

They are concrete thinkers….they decide their teachers and parents must not be telling the truth, so they decide to try just making up stuff anytime they  don’t want to tell the truth!   

Bad idea……instead, respond with empathy and concern.  Go ahead and talk to children about cruelty and death as if it was an event, like many, that evokes sadness and sorrow.  As teachers, we all should take the comments of kids at face value, listen, react, ask questions, tell our true feelings and repeat what you have seen and heard about September 11, in order to comfort them.

Children who are younger than seven or eight years of age have ideas about death that range from "are they asleep, are they in the sky, in heaven, why don't they wake up?"  They may say things like "the firemen got lots of people out, right?"   Or "even if people got hurt, the doctors made them better, right?"    The fact that months and yeas later, with little understanding of time, young children are reinventing the events of 9/11 all over again in  their minds  and every time they reinvent the event in their mind, they develop the skill of being able to accept and understand more and more difficult pieces of information.

Older children show anger and fear.  Parents should not interrupt or say "everything will be fine" or "don't feel that way."  Preadolescence is a time when death is not only a reality but also a possibility.  Teens and preteens understand only that death happens to other people, old people. 

Youth believes in immortality; they will never die!  Let your teens think what they want, and support them by listening and suggesting distracting activities.  Don't worry if this age group overreacts or makes off the wall comments.  Listen, hug, talk, listen and plan.  Tell your children how you are planning to handle your sadness and grief.  Plan a tribute, a donation; give your services to an agency that is helping in the relief effort.  Let your children be a part of the plan.  You are their role model. 

Children's lives are very busy in most famiies; keeping busy is a good idea.  When children are shifted from place to place all day long, they learn to "go with the flow."  They accept good or bad news and information, as a matter of course.  Parents should try to handle the horrible tragedy and ongoing events on a schedule that is busy, but not frantic.  Especially in times of national alert, parents need to act with kindness and show verbal approval for people of all backgrounds.  Do not allow teens to use racial or ethnic epithets.

For the sake of our children who will be tomorrow's leaders, adults need to talk about individuals who may come from targeted countries or regions, with tolerance and concern.  Above all, express love and caring verbally to each individual child. Only then can they hope to learn that life will go on, that life can be good again.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Ask Dr. Susan