How to talk to your kids about 9/11

The date September 11, 2001 became is now etched in history. How do you explain to kids the sheer magnitude of what happened? And how do you reassure them about the acts of terrorism on U.S. soil?

For so many people in the U.S., September 11, 2001 is a day forever engraved so deeply in memory that it could have been yesterday. That Tuesday, the brilliant blue sky, warm sunlight and crisp morning air striking in its beauty was shattered when everything changed fundamentally in an instant.

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But for children — both those who were very young on that day and those that hadn’t yet been born — the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are a little removed. What were they? What does it mean? And how did it all change our world?

As parents, it’s our job to explain these things to our children.

Explaining 9/11 to kids

Whether your children are in preschool, elementary, middle or high school, it’s important that you speak about that tragic and devastating day with them so that they understand the heartbreak that America collectively felt. September 11, 2001 is a part of our modern history. How should you do it?

Be real

Honesty is important when talking about September 11 with your children, so don’t be afraid to share how you really felt that day. “Kids pick up on how you really feel beneath your words. They will become more frightened because now they know they can’t trust you to tell them the truth,” says Carole Lieberman, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted.

Do something

There are so many opportunities to turn the pain of September 11 into something more positive. Mark this year’s anniversary with actions that help someone else — or remember those that were lost. “Do something as a family on 9/11 to memorialize the day and pay tribute to those who died. For example, go to your house of worship, light a candle at home and say a prayer, donate money to a 9/11 fund for survivors,” says Lieberman.

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Be proactive

Terrorism didn’t end with the death of Osama Bin Laden. It’s OK to explain that to your kids so they understand that although there is still a threat of terrorism, there is a lot being done to prevent another attack from happening. “Talk about the ongoing threat of terrorism and how you will prepare as a family by doing things to keep yourselves healthy — psychologically and physically,” says Lieberman.

Using books to talk about the attacks

Books can really help you with explaining 9/11 to kids, when you aren’t sure where to start. “Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say. But there are lots of age-appropriate children’s books about 9/11 that can help get the conversation going,” says Michael D. Baran, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist and director of Cambridge Diversity Consulting.

Here are a few that might be good for your kids:

Keep it age appropriate

Older children are probably ready to hear and see more about the attacks so that they can understand what happened more deeply. But for younger children, it’s enough to be truthful without sharing everything. “To the younger children they will be told that there are some people who do not like our country. These bad people thought that it was important to hurt the United States in a very bad way. What they did caused many people to die and suffer much pain,” says Lorna Kemper, a 1st grade teacher at Gethsemane Lutheran School in Tempe, Arizona.

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And really, isn’t that what it’s really about? In the simplest of terms, the attacks of 9/11 came down to decisions that were made to hurt innocent people because of a hatred for the country that we love. Teach your children to take pride in the country they live in by honoring days such as 9/11 each year. Most adults will remember vividly in the days, weeks and months following the attacks how many homes raised an American flag and flew it proudly. Fly your flag and remember those who were lost, and you not only help your kids learn, you help our country band together.


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