Our children weren't born when 9/11 happened. We have a daughter, almost 9 now, and a son who is 7. It's not a topic we've ever had reason to talk about (we knew no one who was personally affected) although I'm not naive enough to think it's never been talked about in school or elsewhere in their presence. Just that we've never talked about it, as a family. I'm thinking now's the time, before the media coverage heats up. I don't want them to be blindsided. How do we have this conversation?
From: DP, Portland, ME
Thank you so much for raising this subject! I think lots of parents have the same concern and, I agree, there will be an onslaught of media attention in the next 10 days and, one way or another, kids will hear about it. I believe in getting difficult subjects on the table so that kids know you are available to talk about it. Otherwise they may think, "This is so scary/awful/bad, that not even mom/dad can talk about it." Then they are left to their own devices, which usually translates to getting inaccurate and/or exaggerated info from peers, or to their imaginations, which is often scarier than the truth.
I chatted about all this with psychologist Richard Rende, an associate prof at Brown University, and author of a blog for Parents' Magazine. Here's an edited version of our conversation. Please note that we limited our discussion to children whose families were not personally affected by 9/11 and that the boldface is my emphasis, not Dr. Rende's.
Barbara: Where do you tell parents to begin?
Richard: With a question.
B: Like, "Have you heard about something called 9/11?"
R: Exactly. A lot of parents think that "talking" about this means you're going to deliver all kinds of information. Then you end up talking too much about things the child can't comprehend or doesn't want to know.
B. You just want to issue an invitation: Is there something about this you want to know?
R. Plus, you're starting a conversation that may go nowhere right then. I've noticed with my daughter, who's 11, that I'll say something and she doesn't respond, but then a day or two later, something pops into her head and she picks up as if we hadn't stopped talking.
B: Can you give an example?
R. She might ask, "Did a lot of people die?" I would say, "Yes," and I might quote the number. And I would leave it at that. My rule of thumb is to limit myself to a sentence or two, to be literal and factual. Because otherwise we might get emotional and go on about how horrible it was, that people were trapped in the building and the building collapsed on them. That's more than a kid needs. You want to stay close to the question that's asked. and then move on.
Two days later, she might have a follow-up question. It could be anything. How come they couldn’t get out? Did they know they were gonna die? Were they scared? For my daughter, at 11, I would say, "The size of the building made it very difficult. By the time the rescuers could help them, it was too late." Notice, I’m not even getting into the collapse. Just give a little bit of info at a time.
B. What else?
R. I've learned first hand that, for the next two weeks, I have to really monitor media viewing much more carefully than usual, especially including the computer. When we turn our computer on, it launches Yahoo. There's an image there of one of the towers burning.
B. You weren't prepared for that?.....
R. I was and I wasn't. But that's when you say, "Tell me what you know about 9/11."
If it had been a TV image, you can just turn it off or say something like, "I think that would make you upset if you see it. But we can talk about it." Most of us already have code words with our kids for, "We're not gonna watch that." With an older kid, I'd use the phrase, "It's not appropriate for your age."
B. So let's take it from, "Tell me what you know about 9/11." With younger kids, the answer could be, "Nothing."
R. Then I'd say, "You might hear people talking about it. If you have any questions, you can ask me." I know there are some parents who won't like that. They say it feels like they are forcing the kid to be exposed. I disagree.
B. Me, too. This is information that's out there in the world. It's all over the place. You want them to come to you when they have questions. OK, so what about when the child says, yeah, I have heard of 9/11...
R. "Tell me what you know." Then see where the conversation goes. Let them lead you, not the other way around.
B. What about kids who were alive for 9/11?
R. Their actual memories of this might be very limited. Just particular images they'll have. Think of it as if they are coming at it new, from their current developmental perspective. There are a lot of kids [who are] spanning different developmental stages from when it happened to where they are right now.
B. These kids who were alive, what kinds of questions are they likely to have?
R. "Did you know anybody? Were you upset? Where were you when you heard?" Here's what parents need to know: Kids will be looking to you for emotional cues and that's going to vary quite a bit by level of personal connection. Don't deny your emotional reaction. If you cry, you cry. But walk a line: It's okay to display your emotion; that's healthy, much better than being disingenuous. But you don't want to flood your kids with uncontrollable emotions.
B: Anything else?
R. It's really important for parents to expect this to be an on-going conversation, even past the anniversary. Let's say you bring the subject up today, and they don't say anything today, tomorrow, all next week. There's a temptation to think, "They're done." But you've got to remember how kids' minds work. It's a process that gets spread out over a period of time.
B. Richard, one last question. What if a child does see something graphic and is frightened by it? Young kids aren't especially good at recognizing that it's a picture of something that happened a long time ago....
R. Something along these lines: "I know that was scary and very sad, but everything is okay today and you don't have to be scared." The main idea is that kids are worried about the here and now and a parent can focus on reassuring a child that they are safe right now.
For more of Rende's thoughts on the 9/11 anniversay, see his blog at Parents' Magazine.
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