Commemorating 9/11 – Tips for Parents

As the 10th anniversary approaches, we hope that these tips developed for parents for our 9/11 As History project will be a helpful resource for all who work with children. We honor all who fell by supporting our children on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Prepared by Maureen Underwood, MSW, LCSW and
Ellen Galinsky, President, Families and Work Institute

1. Think about your own reactions to the events of 9/11 before you approach your children.

As adults, we can’t help children deal with their feelings and reactions unless we’ve dealt with ours first. Children will be looking to grown-ups to help them understand the meaning of the 9/11 10th anniversary. We owe it to them- and to ourselves- to reflect upon what happened that day and how we have used and can use those events to inform our lives.

2. Start planning early.

There is going to be an extraordinary amount of national print and broadcast media focus on the events of 9/11 for the 10th anniversary so it would be wise to initiate a conversation with your children before 9/11 to prepare them for what they will see and read.

3. Explain to your children why we are remembering the 10th anniversary of September 11th.

To most children, anniversaries are celebrations of good things and it may seem strange to be making a big deal out of remembering a day when so many terrible things happened.

Pointing out to your children that anniversaries are ways to remember important events that have affected our lives. This definition can help children begin to expand their understanding of ‘anniversary’ to include tragic events as well as good ones. It will also be particularly important to remind children that the marking of an anniversary should include reflection about the lessons to be learned from the events that transpired that day. For example, you can say,

”An anniversary is a time when we look back and think about the important things that happened on a particular day. We can also use an anniversary as the time to think about the lessons we have learned because of what happened. Ten years ago some very terrible things happened on September 11th that we will never forget. That’s why, this year on September 11th, our country will remember the 10th anniversary, and we will all have an opportunity to think about the good lessons we learned from what happened that day.”

4. Remember the importance of talking and listening when initiating a discussion about the anniversary of 9/11.

Since talking about the events of 9/11 may be an emotional topic, reviewing effective communication techniques is a good place to start. Remember, good communication consists not just in talking, but in listening as well. Ask your children what they think about what happened on September 11th; ask open-ended questions with follow-up.

“Tell me what you remember about what happened on September 11th. What have you talked about in school? How do you feel about the way our county responded?”

Validate your child’s answers and correct misinformation.

“I know you think that a lot of airplanes flew into buildings that day, but there really were only three airplanes. What you saw happening on television was the same thing, over and over again. It’s like when we look at pictures of your birthday party last year. It only happened one time, even though we can look at the pictures of it again and again.”

Timing is also a critical part of effective communication. It usually helps to have a stimulus for starting a conversation–a news story or a television report, for example, would be a good introduction to a discussion about 9/11 and its 10th anniversary. Talking during the day is better than at night. Most children, like their parents, run out of steam at the end of the day and have little energy for significant interactions. Conversations about upsetting things are never good right before bedtime.

5. Recognize that children may need help putting their feelings and observations into words.

Children may have very unsophisticated language to express feelings and may need help to give definition to their emotions about that day.

“What I think I hear you saying is that you are still very confused about what happened that day. Usually when we’re confused we’re feeling more than one thing at the same time. Let’s see if we can figure out what some of those feelings are for you.”

6. If the opportunity arises, engage your child’s friends in conversation to learn more about what they and your own child are thinking.
Sometimes children talk more openly in the presence of friends than they do when they are alone with adults. If the timing is not forced, you may want to bring up the subject with your child’s friends. Ask them what they think about a particular aspect of the 9/11 aftermath. For example:

“I’ve heard people talking about superheroes like Batman being replaced by new heroes like police or firefighters who responded on 9/11. What do you think about that?”

7. Understand that younger children will feel that the events of 9/11 happened a long time ago and as they didn’t experience them, feel very distant from them.

Because young children will not have experienced the events of 9/11 and because of the way they perceive time (the past seems very distant to them), when asked to discuss 9/11, they may be reluctant or dismissive and respond with genuine lack of interest or even annoyance. For example, they may say:

“Why do you want to talk about that? I already told you I don’t know anything about it.”

These responses are normal. Examine your own responses and reactions and tell your kids what you’re thinking. Even if they don’t respond, you’ve planted a seed of thought that may be referred to in the future. For example:

“Well, I’ve been thinking about how our county really pulled together after 9/11 and I’ve noticed I’m feeling more patriotic. I’ve been thinking about what our family might do on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that reflects these feelings.”

8. Reassure children about their personal safety.

With children who express fears about personal safety, reiterate that the 9/11 targets were public buildings that were symbols of America, not schools or homes. Also remind them of the steps the government has taken to try to keep us safe. And, although our country continues to be concerned about terrorist activities, these events remain very, very rare.

9. Recognize that all children will not have reactions to 9/11.

Lack of concern by younger children who were very geographically and emotionally distant from the events of 9/11 (that is, they live far away and didn’t know anyone who was personally affected) is healthy and appropriate. As you know, most children see the world from their own personal experience and can be indifferent to life events outside their very personal frame of reference. If this happens, focus on the historical context of the events, rather than on their personal responses or reflections.

10. Consider having a family remembrance.

Having your family join together to mark the events of the day is a way you can focus on the day’s personal meaning and lessons. It may be a moment of silence, a shared recitation of what each family member remains grateful for in his/her life, prayers for peace–something that reflects the personalized spirit of your family. The key components of remembrance rituals include joining together in community to reflect upon the special meaning of the event or person we are honoring. Remember, rituals do not have to be dramatic or grand. Simply lighting a candle at the dinner table and having a few minutes of silent prayer could be very meaningful to your family.

11. Monitor television viewing.

Many networks are planning retrospective broadcasts that may include footage of the 9/11 events that could be traumatizing for both children and adults. Even if you choose to avoid these shows, there will undoubtedly be advertisements for them sprinkled throughout regular television coverage and you and your family might be inadvertently exposed to a replay of the 9/11 events. If this happens, remind younger children what they are seeing on television happened ten years ago and that it is not happening all over again. If you decide to watch televised memorial coverage, try to focus on media coverage that addresses respectful remembrances of the lives lost and the critical challenge of going on with life.

12. Inform yourself about what your child’s school is planning to do to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11th.

Ask questions about the school’s plans and make sure there will be alternative activities available if children don’t feel comfortable participating in the general school commemoration. Discuss the school’s plans with your child to both assess his/her level of comfort and to prepare him/her to participate fully in the events.

13. Focus on and remember the positives in life.

The challenge for us all is to move beyond the events of 9/11, contain our worries about future destruction, and live in the moment and celebrate each day. Preparing for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 gives us the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our lives outside the shadows of these terrible events.

The 9/11 As History project of Families and Work Institute was funded in part by a generous contribution from the Bank One Foundation in 2002.

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