Today’s grim anniversary brings up the question for parents, yet again, of how to talk about the terrorist attacks with children, because directly affected or not, even the smallest Americans have felt the reverberations of the terrorists attacks.
David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, who also served on the National Commission on Children and Disasters, has worked extensively with schools on crisis response and grief support, including on how to react to the World Trade Center attacks. He shared with me his thoughts on communicating with children on the 9/11 anniversary and also offered a few concrete tips for parents.
“Anniversaries, especially when associated with media coverage, often resurface feelings related to a difficult event such as 9/11. Parents and friends can offer support by helping children anticipate this reaction, advise them on how to limit or handle grief triggers (which might include limiting exposure to media coverage of the event) and offering additional physical presence and emotional support around the time of the anniversary,” he said.
“Adults also need to realize that children may have very different fears and concerns than adults — one cannot really address someone else’s concerns unless they know what they are, so initiating a discussion and listening to children’s unique concerns and needs is critical to provide appropriate support.”
What about for a child who seems “okay” — with this anniversary or, more broadly, enduring any tragedy? I asked Schonfeld how much a parent or friend should push a child to open up?
“Children learn from an early age that questions about death make adults uncomfortable, and therefore are best not to ask,” he said.
“When parents are having difficulty coping with difficult events, children often hide their own concerns and instead turn and offer support to their parents. They may look okay when they are really struggling to understand and cope; parents may need to believe that there children are doing well and not even see the signs that are present.
“But although adults should invite children to share their questions and concerns, they need to remember that they are invitations. It is generally not helpful to force children to talk or share their personal concerns, but rather maintain a consistent presence, repeat the offer periodically, and wait for them to accept the invitation.”
In addition, Schonfeld said parents, caregivers and friends might keep in mind these other tips:
● Offer sincerity, patience and extra attention when the children express their concerns.
● Adults should offer their own thoughts and feelings when talking to children about the events of 9/11, including strategies they have found effective to cope with distressing feelings or worries.
●Adults should teach diversity, respect and tolerance. Remind children that just because one group of people committed a terrorist attack, it doesn’t mean that every person of a different ethnic group, religious group or country would do the same thing.
● Encourage children to help with a project that will demonstrate support to the military who are currently working to protect the United States from another terrorist attack, or some other means of providing service to others, even if unrelated to the events of 9/11. Children, just like adults, feel better when they are able to help others. Make sure that what is selected is appropriate to the children’s developmental level and personally meaningful — let the children select what they would like to do.
● Support children who want to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 by attending a memorial service or by providing community service.
Have you been talking with your child about the 9-11 anniversary? What questions have you been fielding?