Children Need Special Attention during 9/11 Commemorations

Advice for parents as tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

Posted Aug 16, 2011

We are less than one month away from the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Understandably, the media coverage will be extensive; it could also be very problematic for American children. While it is important to include our children in our collective time of remembrance and mourning, it is also crucial that we protect young ones from unnecessary stress and trauma.

All Americans alive ten years ago were profoundly affected by the September 11 attacks. We will relive some of that horror again via the communicative power of the media. Though most of our children were not directly touched by September 11's tragedies, many might feel as if they are being directly affected because of the extensive and powerful coverage. Most of them did not lose a relative in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Even most of the older kids who were alive in 2001 were safe in school or at home when those four planes crashed and killed so many people, but graphic images and eyewitness accounts brought these tragedies right into kids' living rooms.

It is quite likely that we will once again see the planes crash over and over into the Twin Towers. We will see the survivors covered in the chalky dust that made them look like ghosts. We will see the man responsible for these horrors, Osama bin Laden, looking straight at us from our TV sets. And like the rest of us, our children will feel the impact of these images.

Most parents can recall that September 11, 2011 brought a host of scary questions about airplanes, terrorists, and skyscrapers. A survey conducted in the wake of September 11 showed that the majority of children in New York suffered from irregular sleep patterns and anxiety troubles. Anecdotal evidence showed that many kids were experiencing very similar symptoms nationwide. Maybe more important was the nature of the symptoms: they fell in line almost exactly with the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

To understand how children are affected by news coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, we need to recall what we know about child development. Kids at different ages have different reactions to the televised trauma. Children under five do not fully comprehend the boundaries of reality. When they see airplanes exploding on impact again and again, it is not a recounting of a past event, but rather a confirmation that another plane is crashing each time they see it happen.

Children who are a bit older see the world through a self-centered lens. For them, anything they see on TV is a possibility in the future for them and their loved ones. As kids grow up they see news coverage more for what it is, but it can still produce profound anxiety and fear.

The commemorative news coverage with its graphic images has the potential cause significant fear and anxiety for children and youth. This does not mean we should shield all young people from all of the programming concerning 9-11. It does mean we should take extra time to think how such a program will affect the individual children in our lives.

A few general tips for helping kids process the 9-11 tenth anniversary are:

• Take time to think about, and cope with, your own feelings.
• Help children cope with their feelings by simultaneously acknowledging their feelings and reassuring them.
• Let children know it's okay to ask questions. Answer their questions directly, but do not give them more information than they need or more than you think they can handle.
• Monitor what your kids see and hear about the tragedy through the media to make sure you are comfortable with the messages they are receiving based on their age, maturity level, etc.

The news media have a responsibility to appropriately honor the people who were killed on September 11, but they also have a responsibility to air coverage kids can handle at times when children will be watching. Hopefully many programs will warn viewers ahead of time about the type of footage that will be displayed.

As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches, it is important that we help children process this day in a way that affirms the sadness of the day, but emphasizes the hope and strength of our communities and the amazing ability of people to help each other in times of need. In remembering this tragic chapter of our history we should also reassure our children about their and our country's future.

About the Author

Erin Walsh, M.A. is a speaker on topics related to raising resilient children in the digital age. 

David Walsh, Ph.D. has worked with families and teachers for over 35 years.

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