How to Talk to Your Kids About 9-11 & Other Traumatic Events
Today is the 11th anniversary of 9-11. It's been nearly a decade, but the memories of that day felt fresh last December after the Newtown shootings, and again this spring after the Boston Marathon bombing. If there is a constant in this life, it's that terrorism and large-scale tragedy will happen again and again. For us parents, this poses a special challenge: How do we shepherd our children through these traumatic events?
We spoke with Dr. Carole Lieberman, mom, psychiatrist, and author of Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted, to get some insight. What are the parenting lessons we learned from dealing with the aftermath of 9-11? How can we use what we learned to help our children deal with whatever new challenges will come?
The Stir: How did we see kids responding to 9-11?
Dr. Lieberman: After 9-11, children were traumatized -- whether they lived in New York City (or Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania) or simply watched the news on TV. One of the reasons it was so hard for children to comprehend what had happened was that it seemed like they were watching a movie. We never wanted to believe that someone could actually wage war on our soil, so it seemed all the more unreal.
Some of the symptoms of stress included anxiety, depression, nightmares, regression to behavior of younger ages (such as bedwetting), separation anxiety, physical ailments (such as stomachaches) and so on. Of course, it was even worse for those children who lost family members or friends' parents or others on 9-11.
There are still scars left on those of us who were kids on 9-11 and those who were adults. Most of us are in denial about the ongoing impact of 9-11 and of the current daily headlines about terrorism.
The Stir: How did parents typically respond? What worked? What didn’t work?
Dr. Lieberman: Many parents, dazed and terrified themselves, simply hugged their children and told them there was nothing to worry about. But, children could see and sense how their parents were feeling. Their parents seemed sad and scared, not okay at all. So then, not only were kids upset by the news, but they were upset by their parents lying to them about what was going on and felt they couldn't trust them to tell them the true story.
What worked better was allowing children to ask questions and answering them as calmly as possible, only sugar-coating it in age-appropriate ways. There are many other things that parents could do to help their children process tragedies like 9-11, such as limiting exposure to the news, encouraging them to draw how they're feeling and write stories about it, spending more time with children doing calming activities such as listening to classical music, going as a family to religious services, and adopting a pet.
The Stir: Could you go a little more into what we should tell kids when we talk with them about 9-11? What do we tell five-year-olds versus what we tell eleven-year-olds? How do we describe the event?
Dr. Lieberman: For younger children, parents can describe terrorists as being like bullies on the playground, and 9-11 as being their attempt to bully us. Parents can further explain that terrorists, like bullies, are really cowards who are angry at themselves and take out their anger on people they hurt. For older kids, parents can explain in a little more detail what happened. But, regardless of the child's age, parents should try to answer their questions and not provide more information than the child wants or needs to hear.
The Stir: Are there any key words we should definitely use – or words we should avoid?
Dr. Lieberman: We should reassure children that we love them and that we, our president, and many others are doing a lot of things to keep them safe. We shouldn't describe terrorists in language that makes them seem larger than life lurking on every street corner, or like monsters in scary movies.
The Stir: What do we say when kids ask us if it could happen again?
Dr. Lieberman: We need to acknowledge that it could happen again because it did in a smaller sense at the Boston Marathon. We can tell them that terrorists would like to attack us again, but that many people are working to make sure that it doesn't happen again -- like policemen. And we can say that there have been attempts that have been stopped. So, what we're doing is working.
The Stir: Are there any other common questions kids ask?
Dr. Lieberman: Kids often ask if Mommy or Daddy will come to school to pick them up if an attack happens again. We should reassure them that we will.
The Stir: When something like the Newtown shooting or the gas attacks in Syria happen, should we wait for our kids to bring it up, or should we initiate that conversation? Does it depend on their age?
Dr. Lieberman: For children who are below school age, there is less chance that they will hear about tragic events, unless they watch the news or overhear adults talking. If we don't believe they've been exposed to this news, we can wait until they ask questions. But, children who are of school age most likely have heard something about the news and it is better to bring it up and ask what they think happened, so that we can correct any misinformation.
The Stir: How can parents take what we learned from 9-11 to prepare themselves for the next big trauma? (Which, given the world we live in, we know is coming sooner or later.)
Dr. Lieberman: Parents need to realize that we should prepare the same way runners prepare for marathons. Since terrorism will not disappear in our lifetime, we need to prepare physically and psychologically to withstand future attacks and other traumas. This includes incorporating such things as vitamins, sufficient sleep, exercise and stress-relievers into our daily life. This goes for children as well.
Carole Lieberman M.D. is a psychiatrist, commentator, and bestselling author.
Have you thought about preparing yourself and your family for future traumatic events?