With the another anniversary of September 11 upon us, it may be confusing to know what to do or say to your children about this act of terrorism in New York City. It may very well have occurred before they were born; to them, it’s history. But it is a world event with major impact, and how you discuss it with your children is critical.

For insight and discussion guidelines we spoke to Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, founding president of the Child Mind Institute and one of the nation’s leading child and adolescent psychiatrists. Since 1997, Dr. Koplewicz has been the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology; he has also served as a member of the working group organized by the U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address the effects of terrorism on children’s mental health. In our recent interview, he shares his advice, general reactions, and most importantly, tips on how to ensure your kids are well informed without being overly informed.

Q: Why should parents talk to their kids about 9/11? Is it necessary to do so?

A: We always tell parents they need to discuss these types of events with their children, but this is a little more complicated. If we don’t talk about it, kids will find out about it elsewhere. It’s like sex: if we don’t talk to our kids about sex, then they find out from their friends and the information is incorrect or incomplete. Also, what many people don’t realize is that kids will fill in the blanks.

Q: How should parents start the discussion?

A: It’s never one conversation. The child may want to talk more at a later time or may stop the discussion. Also, be available to talk. If you notice that they are hearing about it but aren’t responding, you may want to say something like, “I know you’ve been hearing about 9/11, what do you think about it?” A child whose sleeping or eating habits change around that time is asking you, without words, to have a discussion. Finally, don’t answer questions that kids don’t ask. It’s not about you or what you want to discuss or get off your chest. A question younger kids might ask is, “Are we safe today?” If that’s the case, talk about all the changes that have been made since 9/11 to keep us safe, such as showing an ID when entering a building, or tell them “that’s why we have to get to the airport so much earlier now.”

Q: What else should parents keep in mind?

A: While adults have a relationship with 9/11, it’s important that we don’t telegraph our own anxiety or anger about what happened onto the child. For kids, there are no relationships—it’s history. When discussing 9/11, parents need to model a calm, emotionally-appropriate response. What I mean by that is, teens have a lot of bravado and will say things like “I think we should go out and kill a bunch of Arabs.” They give a very “I’m freezing, I’m boiling” response. But parents should not minimize their response. Saying that it’s stupid or inappropriate is a sure way to end a discussion.

Q: What is a good age to start having the 9/11 talk?

A: Parents have to know their child. It’s not about starting a discussion, but being open to discussion. In the first grade, that is when they start to learn about history, about things like the first president. Discussing it in a historical way is okay. Talk about it factually and simplistically. Saying something like, “Once there was an attack on the U.S.” or, “Have you been hearing a lot about 9/11? What have you heard?”

Q: What if the discussion goes badly, or a parent says something heated?

A: Parents can always have a redo if a discussion doesn’t go well. Also, there is be a whole section on our website, Childmind.org, that includes tips on how to talk to your kids about 9/11.

Q: Is it appropriate to take a child to the 9/11 Memorial?

A: It’s a very individual decision. Think of Washington DC. We have the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial. All memorials are an opportunity to discuss historic events. We think of memorials in that way. The trip requires some preparation on how to explain it and what to say. If you get visibly upset, say, “it is okay to get upset, but look at how the country has bounced back.” I think it’s about resilience. People are remarkably strong.

The 9/11 Memorial is open to the public, and will welcome visitors who have reserved advance passes; visit 911memorial.org to request visitor passes.

Photo Credit: Created by Squared Design Lab
This interview was originally published in
NY Metro Parents, where Karli is the assistant editor.