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How to approach the subject of 9-11 to kids

September 8, 2011
By Erin E. O’Neill - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

Those who lived through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks remember exactly where they were when the planes crashed into the landmark buildings, killing thousands of innocent people.

For a whole generation of people born after the attacks, the deadliest terrorist strike on American soil is something they only know of secondhand. As the 10th anniversary approaches, they may see images of the attacks for what could be the first time, leading many parents struggling with how to discuss the subject.

Marietta College psychology professor Mary Barnas said the age of the child will help determine how to approach the subject.

"Generally, a child who is older than 7 can think about it logically," she said. "Teachers and parents can explain that there are dangers beyond our immediate neighborhood. Show them geographically. But it's important to enforce that they shouldn't worry, it is not their responsibility and it is up to the adults to protect them."

Older children might want to do something to give back, to have a positive effect, such as helping to support the troops, taking up collections of supplies or supporting firefighters and police.

For younger children, it is more important to follow their lead, Barnas said.

Fact Box

Tips for Parents

Don't wait for your children to approach you; let them know the lines of conversation are open.

Set aside a time to do this when you won't be quickly interrupted.

Answer simply and directly. Less is more. Be honest without being graphic.

Do not avoid the topic. Avoidance may create more anxiety by reinforcing the idea that the events were too scary to talk about.

Listen to the children and let their questions guide you. Don't broach new subjects they haven't asked about.

Be reassuring. Give them the confidence that they're OK.

Monitor their exposure to media as best you can.

Be prepared for the conversation to continue after the anniversary.

Take action. For many of us, the best way to handle a crisis is to take action. This is a good time to talk to your children about community service and volunteerism.

Source: Brown University

Video for kids

Nick News Special "What Happened?: The story of September 11, 2001" on

"You really want to follow their questions if they have any but, for most, it is going to be beyond their understanding," she said. "At kindergarten or preschool age, they are still afraid of monsters under the bed."

Because this is a significant anniversary year, many programs will be on TV - documentaries, newscasts, tributes - and scary images will be in the newspapers and magazines. Overexposure to these images is not healthy for most children. Many adults may also have difficulty reliving the events, especially if they were personally affected in some way.

"We lived in the first Connecticut county above New York City," said Lisa Miller, 44, who now lives in Marietta with husband, Wade, and children, Hannah, 12, and Abby, 6.

"I was at work as a dental hygienist. When they announced the first plane hit, I just thought someone overshot the runway (at LaGuardia Airport). When they announced the second plane hit, we all knew something was wrong."

Being so close to the impact of everything, Miller was especially concerned for her loved ones.

"My first thought was I hope my sister is getting out of D.C., where she and her husband both worked," she said. "We lost patients in the office I worked in."

If, as a parent, the footage being played over and over triggers some very painful, personal memories, don't be afraid to seek professional help for yourself and your family, Barnas suggests.

Parents who are visibly saddened by what they are watching on TV or reading in the paper should try to explain their feelings to their children in a manner in which they can relate.

"Maybe there is something they lost (like) a favorite toy or say 'Remember when we moved and you had to leave your friends?'" Barnas said. "But, again, emphasize that it isn't their fault."

For Miller, whose oldest was 2 at the time, she felt it wasn't necessary to tell her young child about the tragic events.

"I didn't want to tell Hannah but my husband casually told her that some planes crashed into some buildings," she said. "She has since watched many TV shows about it and just doesn't understand why anyone would do that. I don't think kids can really grasp the enormity of it."

The impact of 9/11 on our society offers a teachable moment in issues of tolerance, diversity and multi-cultural awareness, said local educators.

"There are so many different layers and so many ways to approach (the subject of the 9/11 attacks)," said Will Hampton, principal of Marietta Middle School. "It has actually become a bit of a focus for us this year, to help to improve the cultural climate in our building."

Different themes are chosen each month, including responsibility and respect, and every teacher devotes some time to discussing the theme.

"We try to teach that everybody is different and it's not right to make others feels bad because of those differences," Hampton said. "We want them to be able to have the courage to stand up for themselves and to also have the courage to walk away, which isn't always easy."



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