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911 Anniversary: How do you Talk to Your Children?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

As the anniversary of the 911 attacks approach, a psychology expert offers some advice on how to talk to children about what they will inevitably see and hear.

Vanderbilt University professor of psychology Tedra Walden advises parents to be open and honest.

Watch your child’s reaction during conversations about the attacks.

You may need to turn off the television, or simply divert a child’s attention if they’re too young to grasp what they’re seeing and hearing.

Walden, who has studied social and emotional development of young children extensively, says older children exposed to media coverage of 911 events may need more discussion. Younger children may need short, simple explanations.

It’s important to understand your own child’s ability to understand what’s being said. Very young children can become confused; unable to separate fact from fiction.

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When discussing your own feelings, be careful not to impart fear of flying. Remind your child of how many planes take off and land safely every day.

Walden says kids react the same was as you. “If you are crying and upset then they are likely to get upset, but if you are much more neutral, then they are likely to respond in a more neutral way.”

Watching for signs of stress is important says Walden. If your child becomes upset, it means tone down the conversation.

Parents can talk to children about their own feelings, but Walden says it’s important to gauge their level of understanding. Older children are more likely to feel empathy for 911 victims, and may ask for details and ongoing discussion.

Children are going to hear 911 stories. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for talking to your kids about this or any other catastrophic event”, says Walden.

Listen to your children's questions, gauge their reaction so they don’t become stressed, but remain open, honest, and neutral about the September 11 or any tragic event.

The 911 anniversary will likely raise questions among children exposed to conversations and media - some too young to understand the event was real. Older children may have plenty of questions. Open discussion can help instill empathy for the victims and their families.

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