09/08/2011 05:11 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

9/11: Advice On Talking To Kids

By Susan Stiffleman

As anyone who "witnessed" the tragedy of September 11, 2001 as it unfolded will tell you, the experience impacted our lives in ways we could not have imagined.

Most parents feel that it's important for their children to share in this part of our history, but struggle with what to say -- or not say -- about something that has no simple explanation. For youngsters who were too little to be aware of the terrorist attacks, the upcoming ten year anniversary of 9/11 -- with the accompanying media coverage -- makes it important that parents prepare for handing difficult questions their children may ask.

Start by asking your child what he or she has heard about 9/11. Make sure he/she knows that you're willing to answer their questions, but first find out what they have heard or believe about it, so you can offer relevant information.

Be brief. Your child will let you know how much in-depth information she needs. Like those talks about the birds and the bees, the subject of terrorism cannot possibly be covered in a single conversation. It will be a series of discussions as you help your youngster explore notions of religion, faith, poverty, culture, beliefs and the many complex factors that contribute to this issue.

Make sure your answers are age-appropriate. Young children will mostly want to be reassured that something bad isn't going to happen to them or to those they love. Older kids will want information that will help them untangle complicated issues of tolerance, faith and terrorism. Again, answer their questions, and then wait to address follow up concerns.

Limit your child's exposure to media coverage of 9/11. Some children who saw the repeated footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center believed it was happening over and over again.

Young children cannot separate the truth from sensational headlines; if they're bombarded with hours of television coverage, it can generate tremendous anxiety.

Here are some suggested responses to questions your children may ask:

What is a terrorist? Why do they want to hurt Americans?

A terrorist is someone who has been convinced that there is only one right way to think about things, and doesn't want Americans to follow their beliefs or ways of living.

Is something like 9/11 going to happen again?
Our country has learned a lot about how to protect our citizens from the few people in the world who want to do harmful things. (Again, you will use more sophisticated language for an older youngster.) That's why we now have security checks at airports, and lots of ways to keep an eye on the small groups of people that believe terrorizing others is the way to make things in their life seem better.

What happened when you when you heard about it?

Share your experience the morning of 9/11 (again, appropriately), which may have included shock, anger and sadness. Also include stories about the aftermath; the way people rallied together to help one another, and the bravery of those who came to the aid of those in need.

Is there a way to make terrorists stop?
One of the best ways to end terrorism is to help put an end to the poverty and lack of education that is typical of young people who are trained to act as terrorists. The more all of the citizens of our world recognize that we are members of the same family of human beings -- even if some of our religious beliefs or values are different -- the less likely it is that terrorism will spread.

The events of September 11, 2001 rocked our world. As our children grow up, it is vital that they understand how important it is to have acceptance and understanding for others. Knowing about the tragedy of 9/11 can help upcoming generations incorporate tolerance as a core value.

As you decide what to say in these conversations about 9/11, be sure to emphasize the acts of courage, selflessness and kindness that poured in for those who were impacted, from people all around the world. Our children need to know that those who would inflict harm on our citizens are but a tiny fraction of the world population. Let them know that good wishes came from so many people who recognize that, even if we see some things differently, in the end, we are one citizenry, living on one planet, and that we have to learn to get along.