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Explaining 9/11 to Children

What you should tell your kids on the tragic anniversary.

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? The answer jumps instantly into every adult’s mind, along with thoughts and feelings about that horrible day.   

In Los Angeles, I awoke on September 11th to the drama unfolding on television. The next days and weeks were clouded with confusion and fear. When– and where- would the terrorists strike next? Newly pregnant, I worried what kind of world my child would be born into.

As media outlets cover the ten-year anniversary this week, be prepared for images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, of a fiery hole in the Pentagon, and of debris in a Pennsylvania field.

How do you explain 9/11 to your kids? How do you explain the tragedy and horror of one day that profoundly changed the history of the United States?

Frankly, how much share with your children should depend on how old they are.

“What do you know about Sept. 11th?” I asked my nine-year-old recently. He thought for a moment and replied seriously “Is that the airplane one?”

For most children 12 and under, 9/11 holds no emotional resonance. It’s another date to be memorized, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK.

If your elementary and middle school children have a grip on the basic facts, don’t press them to learn more. While kids from eight to eleven are finally beginning to understand the world beyond their immediate lives, they’re not mature enough to grasp what happened.  Focus on the message that they are safe today. If kids need more assurance, take positive action like making a family emergency kit and disaster plan. 

Older kids may have a more difficult time dealing with the 9/11 anniversary. They often DO have an emotional connection to the day, even if they don’t remember it clearly. Many still harbor the epidemic fear and uncertainty of the time.

Monitor your tweens and teens for strange emotional outbursts or rude behavior. You may find your daughter weeping for no reason over a goldfish she flushed down the toilet three years ago. Your high school son may become morbidly fascinated with all disasters, seeking the most gruesome details online.  

Resist the temptation to crack down, and be a bit more understanding. Expressing their emotions- even if they don’t understand the source- can help a child process his or her fears. Since kids are discussing the anniversary in school and online, encourage them to talk to you about what they remember.

Most importantly, tell your older kids how 9/11 impacted you. Make sure they hear how your family experienced that day to balance the high-drama stories currently saturating the media.  

To start the conversation, consider visiting the National Museum of American History from Sept. 3-11. The museum is displaying a close-up view of more than 50 objects recovered from the three sites attacked that fateful day—New York, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa.  The objects will be shown on open tables, without cases. The intent is to make 9/11 more real to visitors, and stimulate them to reflect on its significance. 

We can’t protect our kids from tragedy, no matter how much we would like to. We can’t control what they feel. All we can do is offer information and support. Perhaps with our help, our kids can make sense out of one of the most senseless attacks in U.S. history.  


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