It’s an anniversary we wish we were not observing: September 11, 2011, marks 10 years since the worst terrorist attacks in United States history. No matter where you lived in the world at the time, that day made an indelible impression on your psyche.
But what if you were, say, a newborn? A toddler? Those children – now in middle school – likely are familiar with the significance of the day. As the anniversary of 9/11 draws closer, more children will inevitably hear about it, whether via their friends, parents or on television. But if you plan to talk to children about the anniversary – your own or children in your care – proceed with caution, experts advise.
September 11 will most likely not be on the minds of those who were newborns or not even born when it happened. Therefore, though it is something you may want to discuss, do not bring it up to children, says Rochelle Leiber-Miller, president of the School Social Work Association of America, a middle school social worker in New Rochelle, NY. So steer clear of viewing the news or graphic images of 9/11 in the presence of young children.
“A 10-year-old didn’t see it happen, like some people didn’t see the Vietnam [War] or the Depression or [the assassination of] President Kennedy,” she explains. “I don’t think [the 9/11 anniversary] impacts them as much.”
If your elementary- or middle-school-aged children say 9/11 was mentioned at school, Leiber-Miller adds, answer their questions as honestly as you can without scaring them.
Young children also don’t need details, says Robyn Rubenstein, a former kindergarten teacher who has a master’s degree in school counseling. “Obviously, they don’t understand what a terrorist is,” she says, adding that it’s best to frame any discussion as, “there are some really bad people out there that want to hurt other people but you [children] are safe.”
That reassurance of their safety is crucial, Rubenstein and Leiber-Miller agree. Explain that their house and community are safe, remind them of the adults that take care of them and share that, though 9/11 was a scary time for the world, it happened in the past.
High school/college-aged/young adults
For older children, especially those young adults who were in school 10 years ago and, along with their parents, watched endless loops of the burning World Trade Center towers, you may want to broach the topic of the 9/11 anniversary, says Leiber-Miller. “It’s a different world now, and they’ve seen the world,” she says. Ask those children if they have questions or want to talk about their memories, but reinforce their safety. “High school and college kids are probably disturbed by the world they’ve grown up in,” Leiber-Miller says. “It’s scary to them.”
The 10-year commemoration of 9/11 will be wrought with emotions and memories for adults. However, today’s children see it as a matter of fact, and will naturally learn about the day as a moment in history. Let’s keep them from living what we adults did, Leiber-Miller adds. “If I were to talk to an adult about [9/11], you’d hear in my voice that we were shocked, scared, terrified,” she says. “But don’t make your children feel they have to carry your pain.”