Talking to children about 9/11

Vanderbilt expert offers advice on children’s emotional reactions to tragic events

Tedra Walden
Tedra Walden (Vanderbilt University)

The anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminds us of the thousands of lives lost on that day and the shock, fear and heartbreak felt in this nation and around the world. As people reflect on the horrific events that occurred a decade ago, children will likely hear and see stories about the tragedy, begging the question – how do parents talk to their kids about 9/11?

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for talking to your kids about this or any other catastrophic event,” says Vanderbilt professor of psychology Tedra Walden.

Walden has done extensive research on the social and emotional development of young children, particularly the effects of unfamiliar events on children’s emotions and social competence. She offers these suggestions for talking to children about this difficult topic:

  • Listen to children’s questions and watch carefully their reactions to your answers. If your child is getting too upset, tone down your answers. On the other hand, if your child has increasing curiosity, continue the discussion in order to develop your child’s awareness of unique events.
  • Talk about the disaster in developmentally appropriate ways; that is, discuss the subject in ways that fit the age and cognitive level of the child. Very young children who do not yet have a firm grasp on the difference between reality and fiction may be confused. Older children may be interested in discussing causes of the events and the aftermath, and their empathy helps them relate to the victims and their families and friends.
  • Be honest and straightforward. You can talk about your feelings but gear them toward the child’s level of understanding.
  • Especially for young children, keep it simple and probably short.
  • Children who watch television are more likely to be exposed to alarming descriptions and images. Depending on the age of your child, limiting exposure can be difficult. If the child is young, parents could opt to turn off the television or casually divert their attention. An older child will probably require more discussion.
  • Be careful not to inadvertently instill a fear of flying. If fears arise related to flying, talk to them about how many planes fly in a day and the significant security measures taken before boarding a plane to keep passengers safe.

Walden reminds parents that in any situation, children often react the way you react. “[rquote]If you are crying and upset then they are likely to get upset, but if you are much more neutral, then they are likely to respond in a more neutral way.”[/rquote]

The most important thing to remember when talking to children about any tragic event is to focus the conversation toward the child’s level of understanding, Walden says. Parents should stay calm and watch for signs of stress in their child.