My daughter just turned 8, and for a long time I tried to treat September 11 like any other day. However, I don't know if that's really possible anymore. As parents, we should be the ones deciding when and how our kids learn about 9/11, but the fact is even young children may hear about it, no matter how much we try to protect them.
When talking to kids about any tragic event, you want to find a way to inform them without freaking them out. We chatted with Dr. Lori Walsh, a New York State–based licensed clinical psychologist and mother of three who specializes in parenting and anxiety, who shared her tips for talking to your kids about 9/11 at every age.
Find out what they know. "I always recommend asking what they know first, regardless of age," says Walsh. "Start with, 'Have you heard of 9/11?' That gives you a great jumping off point."
Clear up any misconceptions. While we hope most young kids are blissfully ignorant of the attacks, you may be surprised by what they've gleaned. "They pick up little pieces of information, and then they make up crazy stories because their 4-year-old brains can't make sense out of it," explains Walsh. It's important to correct any misperceptions.
Keep it simple and succinct. There's no need to go into the horrors of the day. Just share the basics: "9/11 is a day that airplanes crashed into these really tall buildings called the Twin Towers," and then answer their questions simply. "They don't need to see images or video, and they don't need the details," says Walsh. "Don't tell them how many people died, or that people jumped out of windows."
Make them feel safe. Whatever you say, end with the message that they don't need to worry—even if, as an adult, you know that's not necessarily true. "You want them to feel that their little world is still secure," says Walsh. "Tell them, 'There were so many brave people on that day, firemen, policemen and ordinary people, who went to help.' Remind them that 'Mommy and Daddy are here to protect you,' and that lots of people are working to make sure nothing like that ever happens again."
Again, find out what they know and correct any misperceptions. School-age children have undoubtedly heard about 9/11 from their friends, in the classroom and on TV. But it's still important to find out exactly what they know before you start talking.
Keep it concrete. Now that they're older, you can share more information and a bit of context, but they're still too young to understand the big picture. "Don't get into politics and the War on Terror," says Walsh. "Elementary-school kids don't have abstract thinking. They can't process different points of view. Stick with the facts. 'These men tricked people and hijacked the airplanes. That's why we have to go through all of that security when we fly.' Relate it to their world."
Ask them what they think. They're old enough to start sharing their feelings about what happened. "If they say it makes them feel sad or scared, you can admit that you feel the same way, too," says Walsh. "Then remind them that everyone's working hard to keep us safe. Give them coping skills."
Middle and High Schoolers
Start a conversation. At this point, you no longer need to tiptoe around the facts. Kids are developing their own thoughts and opinions about what happened. "They're capable of nuanced conversations," says Walsh. "They may be far right or left of your own thoughts, but hear them out and then talk."
Limit exposure to graphic images and videos. People of all ages are disturbed by video of the Twin Towers falling. And while there's certainly no reason to show that to preschoolers or elementary schoolers, older kids will undoubtedly be curious to see what happened. "Try as much as possible to steer them away from sensationalized coverage," says Walsh. "Find some tasteful images that aren't exploitative or overly graphic."
Keep your kid's temperament in mind. Some adults handle things better than others, and that goes double for children. "If you have a kid who's very sensitive and is always imagining the worst case scenario, you need to respect that," says Walsh. But even if your teen does become distraught, remember, kids are remarkably resilient. "Give it a day or two and they'll be re-immersed in their own drama, which is developmentally appropriate."
Model positive behavior. Don't sit around watching 24-hour news coverage of the anniversary. It's not healthy for you and certainly isn't for your kids. "It's a good message for your child to see you turn the TV off," says Walsh. "These things get addictive. It's healthy to say, 'I've had enough.'"
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.