I’ve never told my son about 9/11. Rather, he told me.
One day last year, when he had just turned 8, he came home from school and said, “Mom, did you know some bad men flew a plane into some buildings?”
“Yes,” I said carefully. I took a deep breath and paused before asking, “Where did you hear that?”
“School,” he said, and then immediately started talking about the kickball game they’d had that day on the playground. Kids bring up serious topics and drop them just as suddenly — at times it’s hard to know when to continue their line of thought and when to let it go. For the most part, I follow my son’s lead. I’ve learned that the topic will come back if it’s really bothering him.
And two weeks later, it did.
“Mom, why did those men fly the plane into those buildings?”
“Well, sometimes people are a little crazy, Honey. It’s hard to know why anyone would do something like that. It was terrible, and a lot of innocent people died.” He began to look worried, so I added, “And since that day, we’ve done a lot to make sure it never happens again.” I listed all of the security measures I could think of, and told him how we’re more careful about who flies on planes now and what people can bring on board. (Oh, the balance between reassurance and truth! That’s a tricky one for a parent.)
Last night, footage came on television before I could turn the channel — the Twin Towers going down. I still feel sick to my stomach when I see it to this day; to be honest, I think I’m still in shock that it happened at all, and that some of the terrorists spent time in our little town of Portland, Maine before heading to Boston and to the awful events of that day. My son saw the image of the towers and asked, “Did it happen again?”
“No, Honey, the 10 year anniversary is coming up. People are commemorating it.” He nodded. This year, he lost an uncle and his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’s old enough to understand more about what happened on 9/11. He knows that people died for no reason, that bad people exist in the world who want to hurt others for no reason (or for insane reasons), and that life doesn’t last forever. 8 has been a tough year, one where his baby fat and trust that the world is a good place has been replaced with skinny, gangly limbs and a more serious outlook on life.
“Mom, you know what I wish? That people would see that we’re all part of each other. Those men wouldn’t have bombed us if they remembered that.”
“You’re right, Honey,” I said, and gave him a hug. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.
Are you ever at a loss as to what to say to your child about 9/11 ? Here are some tips from the National Association of School Psychologists:
• Knowing what to say is often difficult. When no other words come to mind, a hug and saying, “This is really hard for you/us” will work.
• Try to recognize the feelings underlying children’s actions and put them into words. Say something like, “I can see you are feeling really scared about this,” and then listen to what they have to say.
• Offer reassurance. Reassure your child that our government has taken many steps to prevent attacks from terrorists and that the military conflict is very far away. For younger children, saying that you love them and will keep them safe is often sufficient. For older children, you can discuss specifics such as heightened security in airports and significant public buildings.
• Don’t deny the situation. At times when your child is most upset, don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to children, “Don’t cry, everything will be okay,” does not reflect how the child feels and does not make them feel better. Nevertheless, don’t forget to express hope and faith that things will be okay.
• Always be honest with children. Share your fears and concerns while reassuring them that responsible adults are in charge.
Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 8 year old boy.