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9/11: Ask Dr. Lori Walsh

August 25th, 2011

9/11: Ask Dr. Lori Walsh

This is a post for parents/teachers for HTE from Dr. Lori Walsh, child psychologist, New Yorker and mother of three, on tips to discussing the anniversary of the September 11 attacks with your child.   Lori is here to take your or your child’s questions about September 11 as well. Please feel free to submit them in the comment box below. Comments are moderated, so if you would like for them to remain private, please indicate that with your submission.

August 25, 2011 —  As the 10th anniversary of September 11th approaches with its accompanying media storm, we are faced with decisions about how to explain the events of that morning to our children, many of whom were not even born that day. The balance between the need to teach them about the world while simultaneously allowing them to feel safe and protected, can feel difficult to achieve.

My husband and I opted to tell our 4-year old daughter a little at the time, that a plane hit the World Trade Center, and tried to keep her world carefree and innocent despite our own anxiety and despair.  A year later, our daughter came home from kindergarten terrified, having heard the entire story, with many graphic details, in class on the first anniversary.  For her, it was as painful and traumatic as it was for us a year before.

It is important to remember that kids can become worried and scared when learning about events that occurred in the past.  It’s difficult to learn that the world is not always a safe place.   There are a few steps you should take to help your child be a world citizen while preserving their ability to cope.

First assess:

* What does your child know, what are kids saying at school and how is the school planning on handling the anniversary?

* How old is your child?  What is their general capacity to cope with upsetting topics?

* How close is the event to your family and how have you coped with it?

The Conversation:

* Do not over explain – you do not need to, and should not, explain every detail.  Keep your child’s age, capacities and general temperament in mind.  While kids have the ability to handle fear and anxiety, it is import to remember their individual capacities and to not overwhelm their coping abilities.

* Answer questions honestly but matter-of-factly without graphic details.  Many children will ask the same questions over and over again in an attempt to understand the issue – be patient.

* Talk about your feelings (without going overboard), leaving lots of room for your child to speak about their own and to form their own opinions.  For example, “I was really sad and even a little bit scared when I found out.  How are you feeling about it?”

* If you are going to have your child watch the news, watch with your child and do not expose them to non-stop coverage, especially of a graphic nature.  Help them understand the whole story and put it into context.


* Watch for stress reactions – increase in fears, anxiety, sleep disruption, tantrums, repeated questioning.  These may signify that your child is having difficulty coping with the information and needs extra reassurance.

* For younger children, getting down on the floor and playing with them – following their lead without judgment – is always a good place to start helping them cope with stress.  Older children may respond well to further conversation and reassurance.

* Give your child a sense of protection and hope.  While you do not want to promise something that you cannot control, you do want to leave them a feeling that the world generally makes sense and that there are things we can do to keep ourselves safe.   It is also important to try to find something positive – talk about the bravery of the firefighters and other volunteers and how the city pulled together during those first difficult months.

Having learned from my mistakes with my oldest child, I have explained the events of 9/11 to my two younger boys in simple, non-graphic terms, little by little over the years.  To give them a sense of safety, I’ve told them that lots of grown ups are working really hard to make sure that nothing like that will happen again.  I’ve also told them that their father and I try hard to keep them safe and do not take undue risks.  While they still struggle at times to understand the causes and meanings of 9/11, I know that they have gotten a good foundation, have had their questions answered and that they can tolerate the confusion they may feel about it.

Lori Walsh, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York.  She specializes in parenting and helping children and adults with anxiety.  Previously, Dr. Walsh worked at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey under a Children of Violence grant.  Lori and her husband have three children.

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5 Comments on “9/11: Ask Dr. Lori Walsh”

  • Beth says:

    I am a new 2nd grade teacher and want to honor the 9/11 victims. My kids were not even around when this happened, what parts of this tradegy would you suggest be talked about. It was so horrible, like you mentioned, I do not want to overwhelm or scare them. But, I do feel it is very important they know that our country is different since that day and many people were very sad from the actions taken by the “bad people” trying to hurt our country. Any suggestions for format to follow? Thank you.

  • First Name Only says:

    Ms. Everett,

    Thank you for your question. My first response concerns your school and its population. Does your school have a plan to mark the date? If so, what is the general policy of what is being spoken about? Are the kids in your school affected directly by the tragedy? For example, are there families who experienced a loss on that day? Have worked at Ground Zero? I’d also recommend that you inform the kids’ parents of whatever you decide – you don’t want them to be surprised when their child comes home from school with new information.

    With these thoughts in mind, I recommend starting with what the kids already know. Ask them if they’ve heard of 9/11. Listen to what they know and correct any misperceptions. Be careful to monitor the conversation to keep it age appropriate – my daughter heard many disturbing details – some not even true- from kids at school that first anniversary. Keep your comments and explanations simple and brief – with basic facts and no overly disturbing or emotional details. As I mentioned in my recommendations for parents, it is important to allow the kids to express their feelings and to conclude with a message of safety and community. Make sure that you include all the brave and generous things people have done to help others on and since that day.


    Dr. Walsh

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