September 2001: “It was burning down, down!” Three-year-old Sarah was happily swinging just a moment ago. I gulped. “Tell me what was burning Sarah. That sounds so scary” ” School” she cried. “I saw it in my dream with fire and then it was all gone!” We ran inside for crayons and paper to draw that scary dream and passed four-year-old Randy crashing down his fourth twin tower of the day.
Talking with children about the huge tragedies in our adult world is challenging. You may want to avoid it, but that’s not the best idea. Children of all ages need to know that the lines of communication are always open. With the tenth anniversary coming up on Sunday (and many public schools talking about 9/11), set aside some quiet time to talk and listen to your kids.
Where to start?
- Check in with your own feelings and be ready to discuss them with your child. Your calm and understanding tone will set the stage for an open flow of communication.
- Be honest with your emotions and model giving voice to those feelings. Tell the truth. “I felt really scared too.” “Yes, a lot of people died.” “I’m crying because I remember that Uncle Joey died on this day many years ago. I’m very sad but I will never forget his smile and the time we….”
- Focus on the positive. “Sometimes really bad/scary things happen that even grown ups don’t understand. But we do know how to take care of each other. When things like this happen there are always people that help.” Tell a story that they can relate to about all the caring and rescuing that happens in a crisis.
- Always talk to them and answer questions only on their level of understanding.
Young children: NO images for school-aged children and younger. Protect your children from the horrific images that will be on every screen and in print. Work hard to keep the images away. Even radio will have descriptions and stories that are frightening.
School-aged children: Ask questions to find out what they know, what they’ve seen, how they feel and what frightens them. “It sounds like you might be wondering about Sept. 11. What do you know about that day?”
Teens: Watch and discuss media with your teens so you can help them process the difficult images and emotions.
- Listen, observe and ask about their fears. Young children will feel and be confused by the emotions of the day even if you’ve done your job to protect them from the images.
- Address fears and give voice to what they are feeling. Don’t worry if you can’t answer a question. Say “I don’t know but I will find out for you.”
- Kids need to feel safe. Help them understand that the world and people for the most part are good and kind and take care of each other.“It is our job as the grown ups in your life to do our very best to keep you and our family safe.”
- Use the creative arts, play and nature as tools for coping and processing feelings and fear. Paint, draw, write poetry, compose some music. School-aged and younger children will need time and space for unstructured imaginative play to help them understand and make sense of their world.
- Seek professional help if you or your child are struggling.
“This is hard for all of us, but we will take good care of each other and we will make it through.”
© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011