Karen Arnold
Photo credit: Karen Arnold

Mindfully Communicating to Children About 9/11

Help to foster valuable lessons amid devastating tragedy.

This marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic events that occurred in New York on September 11, 2001. Kids all over the country will learn about, hear about, and observe tributes and commemorations marking this anniversary. Most of our children will have faint memories of the event, many were too young to remember it, and some weren’t even born yet. It becomes a challenge for us to know what to say about it and how to say it in a developmentally age-appropriate way.

Be conscious not to shy away from having this potentially difficult conversation. Make the concerted effort to gauge where your child is at and their willingness to talk about it. Be respectful of where they are at and take notice of what they’re saying and what their body language conveys. Evaluate whether or not they want to speak. Don’t force the conversation. If they prefer not to speak, continue to check in and let them know that you are there to listen whenever they are ready to talk. For those kids who are readily willing to speak, let your child’s thoughts, feelings and interests guide the conversation.

Express details of the facts in age-appropriate language. Here’s a resource list with facts about the history of The World Trade Center, what happened on 9/11 and how the site was rebuilt. An additional resource from the 9/11 Memorial Museum helps families with activities to create at home. 

This coming week, kids are bound to be exposed to TV and the internet discussing facts about the attacks and may even get a glimpse of video footage from the scenes on 9/11. They are also bound to have tributes and commemorations at school, at their local places of worship, and in other settings. Be sure to ask kids how they are processing all the information that they are exposed to. It can evoke emotions such as sadness, fear and/or confusion which you can help manage and process with them.

Be aware of your own emotions and reactions to the anniversary, as well as all that your child is conveying about it. We may have experienced trauma, whether directly or indirectly, and it can impact the way in which we are able to offer support to our children. We also have the opportunity to model open empathic communication if the dialogue is collaborative, engaging and supportive.

Why we need to talk about 9/11 and how we need to talk about it stems from our core values and the fundamental principles we hope to instill in our children. We can help to foster valuable lessons in the midst of devastating tragedy. These values can directly guide how we talk about it. We have the opportunity to teach our children about:

1) Adversity and resilience – Even if they fall on challenging situations, which can sometimes be inevitable, they can persevere and thrive, and very often learn something valuable, recalibrate/rebuild and emerge even stronger.

2) Openness toward difference and the unfamiliar/unknown – With curiosity and compassion, rather than with inflexibility and preconceived negative judgments, they can be open to others who are different or unfamiliar to them.

3) Unity and connection – Even among tragedy or misfortune they can unite, connect, be compassionate and heroic.

4) Solidarity and standing up for what they believe in – As an American and in their personal value system, they continually strive for freedom, justice, and peace.

5) Safety and security – They remain safe as we currently have stronger policies in place to ensure our safety and security. They share the belief that most people in the world by nature are kind and loving, the ones that are violent and hurtful are the small minority.

6) Being present and in the moment – Moments in life and life in general is so precious that they want to really pay attention to all that surrounds them and live life to the fullest.

7) Practicing gratitude – They can promote gratitude for their freedom and liberty by seizing opportunities to express themselves and be heard by advocating for themselves and others.

8) Personal pride and living life purposefully – They can take pride for doing the right thing and for living a meaningful purposeful life based on what they identify as being truly important to them.

9) Sound judgement and personal responsibility/choice – They can take personal responsibility for having judgments and making certain choices and decisions and consciously learn from them.

10) Being respectful of others – They can make the choice to be kind and behave respectfully toward others no matter how they are being treated because of their fundamental humanism and value of showing respect to all people all of the time.

Some experiential exercises helping to reinforce these values include: (a) Identifying rescue workers and first responders who were heroic during the attacks and explore what their role is in helping people, (b) Interviewing several adults about how they experienced or felt a sense of unity and connection to others during this time, and (c) Creating a collage out of magazines or other materials or mediums expressing how they feel and are processing the anniversary.

These exercises give kids the opportunity to express themselves and process their thoughts and feelings regarding the attacks. It also reminds us to assess ours as well as we embody the quote from Deepak Chopra: “For me and my family personally, September 11 was a reminder that life is fleeting, impermanent, and uncertain. Therefore, we must make use of every moment and nurture it with affection, tenderness, beauty, creativity, and laughter.”

Here is a Healing For The World Guided Meditation led by me. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.

Blog as published in Psychology Today.

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