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Talking with Children About 9/11

How do we explain the unthinkable?

Hand-painted ceramic tiles commemorating those who died on 9/11/01. Photo by David Sim.

We all lost something on September 11th, 2001. For some of us that loss was very personal: a loved one, a co-worker, a home, or a job. But, even those of us who weren't affected directly lost our sense of security. When the walls came down on 9/11, many of us felt like our own foundations were shaken. The unthinkable had happened, with no warning! The world suddenly seemed much less predictable and much less safe.

But life goes on. It's hard to believe it's now ten years later. We've gotten used to taking off our shoes at airports and having our ID checked upon entering skyscrapers. The intense sadness, anger, and fear that many of us experienced in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks have faded in the face of the daily demands of work or school, laundry, dishes, and carpools.

Research shows that for most people, including New York City school children, psychological symptoms following 9/11 were relatively mild and transitory, mostly disappearing within a year. Children who had a harder time adjusting were those who were more directly affected by the attack, such as losing a parent or sibling, had previous traumas or pre-existing mental health problems, and/or had additional post-traumatic stressors, such as poverty. Based on a review of research looking at responses to disasters, George Bonanno and his colleagues conclude that although increased symptoms of anxiety, post-traumatic stress, grief, and depression are common in the first few months after a major disaster, among both adults and children, less than a third will develop chronic difficulties. The fact that most of us are able to bounce back to equilibrium relatively soon after a major negative event is one of the miracles of human nature.

The 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks offers us a chance to reflect on what that event meant to us. It's also a chance to help our children understand this event, perhaps in ways that they couldn't when they were younger.

What happened?

For many of us adults, 9/11 was a pivotal life experience; for children, it's a historical event. The first question that most children will have is, "What happened?" They're too young to have many memories of their own of September 11th, but they're likely to see or hear media coverage of it. They may also hear about it at school or from friends.

Asking your child, "What have you heard about 9/11?" can help you clarify any misunderstandings your child might have. Very young children may be confused by television coverage, thinking that the plane crashes are happening now, or that the crashes happened many, many times.

Keep your explanations simple and age appropriate. For instance, with a young child, you could say something like: "A group of people who hate our country crashed planes into some big buildings. It was sad and scary, because a lot of people died, but it happened a long time ago-before you were born (or when you were little)."

Older children may want to know not only what happened, but why. This is a hard question to answer, but you could say something like: "They thought they were serving God by trying to kill as many Americans as possible. That's not what we believe. That's not what most Muslims believe, either."

Don't be surprised if you see your young child playing or drawing representations of the terrorist attacks. Those are ways of controlling and processing the information. On the other hand, if your child seems more interested in this afternoon's soccer game than historical events, don't push the discussion. Children's worlds are small.

Am I safe?

A second question regarding September 11th that's likely to come up for children, whether or not they say it aloud, is, "Am I safe?" One study that looked at children in second, fourth, and sixth grade found that, according to their parents' observations, older children tend to be more frightened by news stories than younger kids. Perhaps this is because older children have greater capacity to imagine both what happened and what might happen.

Talking about the fact that our government is better prepared to deal with terrorist attacks or that Bin Laden is no longer a threat might help reassure your child.

With teens or philosophically minded children, it might help to talk about the fact that getting out of bed every morning is an act of courage and faith. It takes courage because we know that bad things could happen, but we choose to live our lives anyway, and to have faith that, overall, the good in life far outweighs the bad.

But sometimes pictures can get through to children better than all of our adult words.

I live in New Jersey, commuting distance from New York City, and I remember a young girl who came to see me for a therapy session around 9/11. She was understandably frightened and kept asking, "What if Bin Laden does this?" or "What if Bin Laden does that?" At the time, we didn't know what was going to happen. I couldn't honestly tell her, "Don't worry. Everything will be fine."

So, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a small stick figure at the bottom. "This is you," I told her. "Let's talk about who's in charge of keeping you safe." She said her parents, so I drew stick figures to represent them.

Reprinted with permission from Kennedy-Moore, E. & Lowenthal, M. (2011). Smart Parenting for Smart Kids (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).

Then she said her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, so I drew more stick figures above those. Then she said the police and firefighters, so I drew stick figures with hats. Then she said the military, so I drew stick figures with crew cuts. We worked our way up to the President--a stick figure with a flag. I couldn't give this little girl a guarantee of safety, but I could leave her with an image of layer upon layer of adults, standing between her and danger.

How should I respond?

Finally, the anniversary of September 11th offers an opportunity to give our children some answers to the important, but usually unspoken, questions about how to respond to a major negative event.

Research routinely finds that when parents cope better, children tend to cope better, but that's not always easy to do. An experiment by Peter Fischer and his colleagues showed that, compared to parents who saw neutral photos, parents who were exposed to photos of the 9/11 terror attacks behaved in more negative, impatient, and harsh ways with their children shortly after seeing the photos. So, if you find yourself feeling more irritable or on edge in the next couple of weeks, with the nonstop media coverage of the anniversary, it may help to know why, to turn off the TV, and to try to come up with some positive coping strategies. Our children watch what we do more than they listen to what we say.

Adversity takes its toll on us, but it can also help us grow. A nationally representative survey of 1382 adults by Michael Poulin and colleagues found that, two months after the attacks, almost 60% of people perceived benefits from 9/11. These benefits included increased kindness and greater religious and political engagement.

I don't believe that tragedy has any intrinsic meaning, but sometimes it's possible to create meaning out of tragedy. For some people, the events of September 11th were a call to think about their priorities in life and to make sure they are doing what really matters to them. Others felt a deep appreciation for what they have. Some people created meaning through an increased sense of community and took comfort in the out-pouring of caring that the tragedy precipitated. For some people these events were a call to increased patriotism, whereas others felt an increased need for global understanding or for fighting hatred and bigotry. For some people these events lead to a desire for greater spiritual connection.

Anyone who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows how easy it is to lose our good intentions in the busyness of daily life. So it's important to translate whatever meanings we create into specific do-able actions, rather than leaving them as vague resolves. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 might be a good time to recommit yourself to putting your values into action. Call your mother once a week. Tell your spouse "I love you" before you go off to work. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Nurture your spirituality through spending time in nature or in a faith community. Donate time or money to a political cause. Send a care package to the troops. Read a book about Islam. Small, tangible acts like these make it more likely that the meanings we create won't be just fleeting inspirations. Instead, they can become an integral part of our lives.

Talk with your child about what you've decided to do and why. One of the most powerful lessons that we can teach our children is that growth can emerge from sorrow.

Where were you on September 11, 2001? Do you remember how you reacted? Did you make any positive changes or resolutions after that time?


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. Google+ Twitter: psychauthormom

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development.

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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission
Source: Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission

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photo credit: "Tiles for America" by David Sim / CC BY 2.0


For further reading:

Bonanno, G. A., Brewin, C. R., Kaniasty, K., & La Greca, A. M. (2010). Weighing the costs of disaster: Consequences, risks, and resilience in individuals, families, and communities. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11,1-49.

Cantor, J. and Nathanson, A. I. (1996), Children's fright reactions to television news. Journal of Communication, 46, 139-152.

Eisenbert, N., & Silver, R. C. (2011). Growing up in the shadow of terrorism: Youth in America after 9/11. American Psychologist, 66, 468-481.

Fischer, P., Fischer, J., Frey, D., Such M., Smyth, M., Tester, M., & Kaastenmuller, A. (2010). Causal evidence that terrorism salience increases authoritarian parenting practices. Social Psychology, 41, 246-254.

Goldman, L. (2003). Talking to children about terrorism. In M. Lattanzi-Licht & K. J. Doka (Eds.), Living with grief: Coping with public tragedy (pp. 139-150). New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.

Poulin, M. J., Silver, R. C., Gil-Rivas, V., Holman, A. E., & McIntosh, D. (2009). Finding social benefits after a collective trauma: Perceiving societal changes and well-being following 9/11. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 22, 81-90.