The anniversary of 9/11 is always a painful one: It reminds us of the events of that terrible day, of the thousands of lives lost, of how stunned and vulnerable we felt as the reality of the attacks sank in.
But there's also the desire to honor the dead, the families who bore the burden of the attack, and the things we stand for as a nation. We celebrate resilience and renewal even as we vow not to forget.
The 10th anniversary, this year, brings those things even more sharply into focus. We're aware of all the ways we've changed and moved on in a decade. And nothing reminds us more viscerally of how much time has passed than our children.
Children who were infants and toddlers the day of the attacks are now middle schoolers. Those who were just old enough to understand what happened are in high school and heading off to college. Kids who were in high school may even have families of their own.
For many younger children, 9/11 isn't something they lived through but a piece of history, something they learn about in school. That's why, when we talk to children about the 9/11 anniversary, it's more important than ever to do it in an age-appropriate way.
As adults, we have our memories and our own relationship to the events of that day; our children probably don't share them. This isn't a bad thing, but it's an opportunity to think about what we want our kids to know, and consider, about this attack on our country, as we each find our way to pay our respects to those who sacrificed the most.
Here are some guidelines for talking to kids about 9/11.
1) Take your cues from your child -- each child, individually, if you have more than one. For those old enough to remember the events of 9/11, let them tell you what the anniversary means to them, what they remember and how they feel about participating in any commemoration. Children, and adolescents in particular, often resent being expected to have appropriate feelings on demand.
2) Share, but don't impose, your feelings. The events and the emotions of that day are still painful to many of us, but you want kids to know that they don't have to feel the same way. Ten years is a long time, especially in the life and mind of a child, and unless they lost people close to them in the attacks, the memories may not be potent. It's helpful to them if they don't feel that you depend on them to perform in a prescribed way.
3) Be age-appropriate. If a child is too young to remember 9/11, consider her age in deciding whether this is a good time for her to learn about it, or learn more about it. Don't force the issue. But if you see that the time is right, you may want to use the event to invite questions, to take an inventory of what she knows or thinks she knows, and provide more details.
4) Don't answer questions that aren't asked. Children as young as first grade are learning about 9/11 in school, as an important part of our history. But there's no reason to volunteer disturbing or frightening details unless a child has heard them and needs a reality check from you. If he does want to talk about things that are deeply upsetting to you, try to do so calmly, without telegraphing your feelings.
5) Turn off the TV when you need to. Try to avoid exposing children to the intrusive, repetitive TV news coverage, especially the pictures of 9/11 we saw for weeks and months after the event. They can make children feel anxious and stimulate unwanted emotions.
6) Help them feel safe. Kids are egocentric. They want to know "are we safe today?" The answer is yes, we are. Because of 9/11, there is tighter security at the airports and important buildings everywhere. And, finally, we are able to tell our children that the mastermind and many other leaders of al-Qaeda, the hate group that sponsored this attack, have been killed or captured.
7) Focus on resilience. If you go to a memorial, talk to kids in advance about why you're going, focusing on honoring those who died, and celebrating the resilience of both the nation and the individual families who lost loved ones. We memorialize things out of respect, to demonstrate that we haven't forgotten their sacrifice, and to stand up for our values and beliefs. We honor those who tried to help those trapped in the towers in the attack and lost their lives as the buildings fell. We honor the many, many people who helped with the search for survivors and the painstaking and painful job of removing the mountain of rubble left by the attacks. Don't talk about the threat of terrorism and the next terrorist attack.
8) Don't focus on hatred. Teenagers have a lot of bravado. They tend to be dramatic and extreme, and some may respond to the renewed focus on 9/11 by wanting to lash out against all Arabs or all Muslims. As a parent, say, "I understand that you are angry. But 9/11 happened because of a select few, not an entire population." Help your child do something positive and active instead. There are a number of great organizations that need support, including Tuesday's Children, the Wounded Warrior Project and the American Red Cross.
9) Don't feel that you have only one chance to talk about this. As parents, you always get a "re-do" to talk about difficult things. It's better to think of tough issues as an ongoing conversation that develops as kids grow and change. If you feel you haven't gotten it right the first time, give yourself a break and try again later.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist, a member of the advisory board of Tuesday's Children, and the president of the Child Mind Institute. For more parenting tips, go to childmind.org, which also offers a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.
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