Montefiore in the News
How to talk to kids about 9/11, and why you should
- September 9, 2021
The 'Tribute in Light' public art installation commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, shining up from the city skyline of Lower Manhattan in preparation for the 20th anniversary. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
By Jelena Kecmanovic | September 9, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. EDT
For today’s schoolchildren, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are part of history. As a psychologist, I have heard many parents struggle with how to discuss it with their children as the 20th anniversary approaches. They are unsure whether they should even broach the subject and are often apprehensive about the conversation and its possible effects.
I have asked child psychologists, educators, and authors to shed light on the most common parental concerns.
Should you talk to kids about 9/11?
The unanimous answer is “absolutely.” Children are already hearing about it at school, from peers, and on social and traditional media. “By taking the initiative to talk to kids yourself, you can help manage the information coming in and correct any misconceptions,” says Sandra Pimentel, chief of child and adolescent psychology and associate professor at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
You also can approach discussions about 9/11 as an opportunity to share your story of this watershed event, which can personalize it for your children and bring you closer. Muniya Khanna, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia and co-author of “The Worry Workbook for Kids: Helping Children to Overcome Anxiety and the Fear of Uncertainty,” suggests not shying away from communicating your emotions and your values in the process. “This is your chance to shape their narrative,” she says.
Why is it important to discuss it?
The events of 9/11 have profoundly changed our country and shaped everything from travel and arts, to politics and immigration. “Helping kids understand this will make history become real,” says Dan Jones, a middle school social science teacher in Mansfield, Ohio, and the author of “Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide.” He finds that kids become curious once they understand how much 9/11 has affected all of our lives.
“We must talk to kids about it so that they can put current events in context and understand why we do what we do in airports and other places,” Mary Karapetian Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Maryland, and the author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back,” says. “But we also need to talk about the prejudice and discrimination that some people displayed after 9/11 and why it is wrong.”
The 9/11 discussions can then open the door for having important conversations about often uncomfortable topics. “We can discuss how fear can, but doesn’t have to, lead to scapegoating whole groups of people,” says Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of many child and adult books, including “Towers Falling.”
How do you broach the topic?
The main barrier to starting what many perceive as a hard conversation is adults’ discomfort. Jones shared that he realized that he had not led many discussions about 9/11 because it was a difficult memory for him, but he intends to change that this September.
It is a natural human tendency to avoid uncomfortable subjects, yet we stand to gain trust and respect from our children, as well as build their emotional resilience, if we tackle them head-on. “We can show them how it is okay to be scared and broach the topic anyway, how it is uncomfortable but we can handle it,” says Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters and co-author of Once you decide to bring up 9/11, “always start with questions,” suggests Khanna. You might ask, “What have you heard or seen?”, “What do you think about that?”, and “How are you feeling as we talk about it?” It is always best to meet kids where they are and take their lead. They are bound to have a lot of questions once you signal that it is acceptable to talk about it. “And never talk more than the kids,” Khanna says.
What do you do about your own feelings?
Many of us still experience a range of emotions when we think and talk about 9/11, and parents often struggle with whether to shield their kids from their distress. Trying hard not to show any negative emotions in front of your children will not work because “kids pick up on physiology and facial expressions,” says Karapetian Alvord. “Also, this is an opportunity to model that grief, sadness, anger, and fear are all normal and okay to have.”
But being obviously distraught and distracted by managing your own emotions is not helpful either. Johnson advises giving your children your full attention and speaking as calmly as possible. “Being too stressed or rushed could communicate that you can’t handle this,” he says.
So, aim for the happy middle, remembering that none of us are perfect and that kids are more forgiving and resilient than we think.
How do you talk to younger kids without traumatizing them?
“Keep it simple, fact-based, and not graphic,” suggests Pimentel. “You can say that some people did bad things, but that this is very rare.”
Also, make sure that the kids are not exposed to disturbing images or videos. Create opportunities for them to talk, paint, or play to express their feelings.
Jon Harper, assistant principal of an elementary school in Cambridge, Md. and host of the “Teachers’ Aid” podcast, said it is also important to emphasize that many people work to keep us safe. “As Mr. Rogers said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ ”
How do you balance the message with hope?
The tragedy of 9/11 encompassed lost lives, wars, and an increase in prejudice. But it is crucial that we also share the courage, resilience, and hope that emerged in the aftermath.
“We need to talk about heroes, and families and communities that came together,” says Karapetian Alvord. “This is an opportunity to teach altruism and what we can accomplish when we unite.”
Discussing specific hopeful stories, whether personal or described in books, can be particularly powerful. Even better if you are genuinely behind them, since kids can smell cynicism from afar.
“The stories of unity that emerged after 9/11 are especially useful civic lessons now, as we face increasing polarization,” Parker Rhodes says.
How do you empower kids to get involved?
There is no better antidote for feeling powerless in a world that includes horrific events like 9/11 than having a sense that you can control what you do in response to it. This is a potent message for kids, and especially teenagers.
“Help them figure out what they can do to change things even a little bit,” Harper says. “Talk to them about engaging with respect and kindness with others, and standing up for people who are being mistreated. That’s the best way to commemorate 9/11.”
Pimentel’s 13-year-old patient recently asked her if she had seen images from the Kabul airport. “After we talked about her feelings, we focused on being a part of the solution for today’s problems that I tied to 9/11 — like collecting items for Afghan refugees or making something to welcome them to the U.S.,” Pimentel says. “Kids are incredibly creative and altruistic when we give them a chance.”